Mother, May I by Amy Gaffney: shortlisted for Writing.ie Short Story of the Year
A graduate of UCD’s creative writing MA, Amy Gaffney co-edited The HCE Review
Amy Gaffney: a graduate of UCD’s Creative Writing MA where she was co-editor in chief of The HCE Review
‘Now, Maggie, imagine what it would be like if you had the occupation you wanted as a child.’ These words slide from my therapist.
I smile tightly. I’ve already dealt with life’s disappointments, mine, my mother’s, and Steve’s mother’s, and that’s a lot of disappointment to have dealt with at the age of 33. I certainly do not need to revisit why I’m not an astronaut, an artist, a mad scientist, a briefcase carrying lawyer, a lauded fashion designer, an Oscar and Tony award winning actress, or anything else. What about the job I want as a grown-up? Is that not important?
I wore red, because he unnerves me. He uses words sparingly, in contrast to how he uses his death stare. I pull at the thread that loosely joins the button to my shirt sleeve, and refuse to meet his sharp scrutiny. If the button pops off it will be free. Attached to nothing. Umbilical severed. Autonomous. My arse sweats in the straight-backed electric chair. It’s not really electric, it’s just I get shocks from it every time I’m here. It’s covered in some cheap polyester-nylon shite. My obsession with fabric when I was 14 taught me something: Don’t be a cheap skate.
‘I never really wanted to be anything.’ I peer through my fringe and his self-satisfied smug-stare lands on me. His thin lips stretch in a false smile, his tightly shaved chin dimples.
‘Mmmmm. You never wanted to be anything at all, or anything in particular?’ his large nostrils flare at the end of his pointy nose as he tries to draw me further.
‘Anything. Just anything.’ I say. Then I think that I’ll wind him up a little.
‘You mentioned before that you were interested in fashion. I imagine that’s a difficult industry to get into?’
‘Well, I’d have to go to college.’
‘Just go to college? That doesn’t sound too hard.’
‘Well, if you want to do anything in fashion you have to get out of Ireland and try get into a fashion house somewhere.’ Honestly. Do I have to explain everything?
‘So, you feel that Ireland isn’t the place for you to forge a career in fashion?’
‘Well, no… it’s just that… Ireland is such a small place, and well, it’s always the same people with the same vision of…’ I paused, how could I say this without sounding mean?
‘Mmmmm?’ The fountain pen in his pale freckled hand scratches the page of the notebook he balances on his crossed knee; his trouser leg is hitched to reveal posh socks, the kind of socks that hill walkers wear: thermalish, cushioned, flecked. Boring. He continues, ‘You say ‘same vision’. What does that mean to you?’
I shrug and pull at the red thread. In for a penny in for a pound as they say. Time is almost up anyway. So, I give him a titbit to make him feel good about this session.
‘If you look at the shape of Ireland, on a map, it looks square. Like a box. Everyone in Ireland thinks inside of Ireland, about Ireland, about what people think of Ireland. No one likes to rock the boat. They can’t see things differently – they’re always trying to fix things they think are not normal.’ Like me.
He nods, his pen rests on the notebook, and for a moment he seems interested.
‘This country is all about trends. What are trends?’ I look at him, wait for him to answer. He death-stares me. I shake my head sadly, if he doesn’t realise what a trend is I’ll have to enlighten him. And this man is supposed to be knowledgeable. ‘Trends are the backbone of a safe, conformist society. Trends are the safe way to follow fashion because trends are the acceptable somethings that everyone does. No rules broken! Trends give a false impression of being different, of things changing, of the trend wearer being brave and bold, but all the while just conforming. Like think about how trendy it is now for a man to be in the labour ward!’ He shifts in his non-electric real-leather chair and nods conspiratorially. I nod back. ‘Well, what I want to know is…where are the real trendsetters?’ By the time I finish I’m breathless and on the edge of the electric chair, my ears throb with heat, sweat prickles under my arms.
‘Ok. That’s very interesting. Responsibility and the chance to make a difference. Is that why you’re here, Maggie?’ He picks up his pen and resumes his note scratching.
‘I’m here because…’ My mouth hangs open. Why am I here?
Because my mother thinks I’m a flake, and that I need a better job; because Steve’s mother thinks that I have an irrational fear of children and childbirth; because I think Steve is listening to them. And I think that he’ll leave me, and I’ll have to go back to living in a bedsit where the landlord controls the heating. I’m afraid that I’ll catch glimpses of Steve pushing a buggy through the park, while his uber-glamourous, pulled-together new wife sends emails to the office stat as she power walks beside him. Then he’ll see me, and walk past me as if I was a ghost. I’ll watch my friends graduate into middle age, and I’ll still be wearing Doc Martens and bomber jackets, except not the ones that are fashionable now, but the ones that were out in the 90s. The 90s when we thought we couldn’t get pregnant if we did it standing up, but definitely could if we sat in a Jacuzzi with some free-floating spermatozoa.
I’m here because I’m afraid I’ll lose him.
I’m here because I don’t know how to be who they want me to be.
I’m here because I don’t know how to be who I want me to be.
He death stares me again. Bores into me with that question, that stupid existential question. He may as well have asked me why any of us are here? Blast Freud and his psychoanalysis babble. The nylon fabric stings the back of my thigh, where my skirt has wriggled up. Ten deniers are no match for the electric chair, but they are a prerequisite for my current temping job. I’d rather be in jeans.
‘…because I don’t fit in?’
‘Is that a question, Maggie?’ He raises an eyebrow at me.
‘How can you answer a question with a question!’ I know he is annoyed, his foot energetically taps up and down. Tap tap tap tap tap. It’s his biggest tell. He scribbles something down, looks at me, I can see he is repressing a sigh, then he nods and writes down something else. I saw the red thread back and forth, allowing it to mark the pad of my fingertip.
‘Maggie, why is it you feel that you don’t fit it? Are you under pressure to be here?’ He folds his hands over his notebook, his leg tapping slows down as I squirm further back into the chair.
Damn the man is perceptive. I purse my lips and sit back in my electric chair, and wince as a jolt whizzes along my thigh. I’d out-waited him before. I’ll out-wait him now – what is time anyway? Time is of now use to me. He pushes up the sleeve of his freshly ironed shirt, death-stares me, then finally he peers over his glasses at the clock. I swear he looks relieved.
‘I’ll see you next week.’ The notebook snaps shut.
‘Yeah, next week.’ I swallow twice, and close my mouth. Next week, after my mother has interrogated me to be sure that I haven’t blackened her name. What would Freud say about that! I feel like laughing, or crying. I’m sure which emotion is overriding my mind. The red button pings from my sleeve, flies through the air and rattles down inside the radiator. I don’t have the energy to care, I just get up and shuffle through the door.
Steve is waiting for me. I asked him not to come. But he’s sitting back on his own electric chair, looking uncomfortable in the stuffy waiting room. He looks as if his arse is itching. I stop and look over at him. Mind your sperm count isn’t depleted by the heat generated from the nylon, Stephen, the mothers will never become grandmothers if you keep electrocuting your danglies. Imagine if after all of this shite it turned out that it wasn’t my fault after all. What would your mother say then? I pause, shake myself; I push those awful thoughts away and I smile towards him. None of this is his fault.
‘You didn’t have to come. I told you I was ok getting the bus.’ But my muscles ache as much as if I’d run a marathon, my legs don’t feel like my own. It is like this after every session, even the ones that I don’t talk in. Somewhere above my forehead hangs a familiar fog, heavy and intrusive as if I’d donned super long false eyelashes and daubed them thrice with mascara. I blink slowly, hoping that Steve won’t ask me how it went. He takes my coat, and Christ, I am so glad to see him.
The secretary watches us with interest, her gaze lingers on Steve just a little too long for my taste. I pay, and nudge Steve back from the desk. He unknowingly ignores the secretary’s bright smile that screams: Hey! Fancy spending a life with me? – I have a permanent, fulltime job - I know who I am - I’m housetrained and FYI my ovaries are ripe for the picking - pick me pick me! I watch how her smile never falters while she struggles to connect me and Steve, struggles to figure out our relationship. He’s all suit and tie, smooth hair and chin; I’m laddered tights, out-of-date mascara, awkward in the ‘suit’ I bought cheap at Tesco for temping jobs. She hands him the receipt, not me, so I plonk my left hand on her desk, glad that I’d worn both my wedding and engagement rings. Then I wish I hadn’t. Her nails are clearly photoshopped onto her hands. Mine are in rag order. The shame. I am glad though, to see Steve. And I know that he really doesn’t mind picking me up, this is just the way he is. He’s thoughtful, considerate. He’s a good man. I must drive him insane. I should just relax, none of this is his fault. He is the way he is, and he’s not in therapy, so he must be ok.
‘What would you think of going to the pub for dinner?’ Steve clears his throat as he holds the door open for me. I think it’s not going to the pub for dinner, it’s going to the pub for a chat, with his wife, in a safe, open, and inhabited environment. I trudge alongside him to the car. Even my toenails hurt.
‘Ok, but I want to be home by eight, I want to do some work.’
‘No problem! We can be home earlier if you want. What are you working on? Your CV?’ Steve beams at me in relief. Relief that we don’t have to skirt around what came up happened in my session. But what a topic we’ve landed on. My CV. A 17-tonne scarlet elephant, bedecked with bells and whistles, wearing a little sequined number, tap-danced a scene from Madame Butterfly danced across the path in front of me. It had the letters CV stamped on its forehead.
My Currrrrrrriculum Vitae. The bane of my teenage years. I can hear my mother’s tinkly helpful voice: ‘Oh Margaret, that would look great on your CV…’. She made me put in hours, unpaid hours, at a local charity shop, in the parish centre, babysitting for the bank manager. She pushed me to get a part time job anywhere: ‘Just pop your CV in on your way home from school, Margaret, I had a chat with so and so and she said that she’ll look out for you’. She drove me up the wall with each and every ‘little suggestion’. But she’s my mother, she means the best for me. I know she does. Just as Steve does by picking me up. It just irritates sometimes; they treat me like I’m incapable on one hand, and on the other they expect me to be a ‘fully functioning adult’. How can I when they’re hovering over me and making little suggestions all the time? Steve never had an issue with my jobs until his mother and my mother joined forces. The last time it was, ‘Oh, Maggie’s filling in on reception again. I see. Isn’t that a little, well, how can I say it? Isn’t it a little childish – to be chasing after these temping positions? It doesn’t really say much for her staying power, does it? Wouldn’t she be better off at home? A wife should be at home, looking after the house and…’ His mother is a real piece of work.
The pub is empty, which isn’t a surprise. It’s too early for drinkers, and too late for diners. Steve picks the seat, near the fireplace where a trio of candles flicker in the downdraft. He hands me a dog-eared stained menu and I look around. The place is a kip. My stomach starts churning. I don’t want to eat here. I’ll end up with food poisoning. I’ll puke everything up and nothing will stay down for days, I’ll lose money buuuuuuut …I’ll lose weight. It will be great! I’ll break a lifetime of bad habits in a week and end up gawky, a contemporary version of 90s heroine chic. I’ll have high Slavic cheekbones, just like the girl behind the bar. I use the word girl in every sense of the word, she looks too young, and too addicted to substances to be legally allowed to sell alcohol. She’s all angles beneath her black shirt and apron. She’s eleven if a day.
That’s when I wanted to be a lawyer. I thought I could take over the world, or at least I’d win all the cases put in front of me. LA Law was on telly at the time, and may have influenced me just a teeny bit. I was the best debater in my class, I won a trophy in the regional competition. I had such high hopes. Of course, I looked amazing in my future role as lawyer extraordinaire, mainly because I had such a sense of style. In my dreams, my hair was always swingy and black and shiny, not the drab not quite blonde, nor brown, nor ginger, lack-lustre that it actually is. Mam always said that I should be a hairdresser, or a beautician. She said that it was a nice, unchallenging job, one that I could do from home when I had children, because I’d have to be at home to mind the kids, ‘but don’t forget, it’s important for a woman have some little money of her own’. My mother, in one dopey ridiculous sentence, set feminism back fifty years, all the while thinking that she was channelling Virginia Woolf. She put me on a diet. I didn’t know what the word diet meant. I’d never heard it before that day. I’ve been hungry everyday since.
Mam blames my fat arse for my temping job, and my temping job for my fat arse. She blames the fat rolls on my back for me not being able to wear her wedding dress, and she blames my every fat cell for my ‘leftie’ thinking. Mostly though, she blames my ‘obesity’ for her lack of grandchildren. This is where she and my mother in law agree. It’s the common ground they share despite each thinking that the other’s child is not good enough for their own child to marry. I don’t think I’m that fat. I’m only overweight according to the online BMI calculator. Steve never complains. He loves me, warts and all. And God, but he’s gorgeous. Just looking at him makes my skin tingle, and my stomach tighten. I’d do anything to get his attention, to have his skin against mine. Jesus Christ. My cheeks flame up. Even in this disgusting dive he’s gorgeous. He’s a ride. I’d ride him right now, except I’d catch chlamydia from the stool.
‘Stevie, it’s not very nice in here. Let’s get a take away and go home.’ I run my fingers along his arm.
‘It’s not bad in here.’ He twitches, and licks his lips in anticipation of a pint.
‘Steve, it’s walking in here.’
‘Yeah. But my mam called. She’s picking up your mam now. They’re on the way over to have a talk with us. I think it’s about IVF.’
‘IVF?’ I think of his mother; her double-chin wobble, her meticulously ironed blouse and her ‘portable rosary beads’ that she had blessed in Rome. I think of my mother; with her calculating stare, her diaries, her low-fat milk, and how she still fits into clothes she bought before she was pregnant with me. I think of them together. And I shiver.
So I order a double Jack Daniels. No mixer. I knock it back. Steve does the same. We don’t need IVF. We need to be left alone. I am so ready for a baby. So is Steve. What job have I always wanted? I almost laughed aloud. It’s the one question I’m always asked and the one question I’m afraid I’ll never be able to answer.
Mother, May I by Amy Gaffney was first published in HCE Review , Volume 3, Issue 1. From Kildare, she is a graduate of UCD’s Creative Writing MA where she was co-editor in chief of The HCE Review. Her poetry has been published in Poetry Ireland Review, Irish Times Hennessy New Irish Writing, Ropes Unearthed 2019, Limerick Poetry Month, and in Skylight 47. Her prose has been published online in The HCE Review and Public House Magazine.
The shortlisted stories for the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year are:
Parrot by Nicole Flattery (The Stinging Fly, Issue 39, Volume 2, Winter 2018-19)
A Real Woman by Orla McAlinden (Full of Grace, published by Red Stag)
Mother May I by Amy Gaffney (HCE Review, Volume 3, Issue 1)
Sparing the Heather by Louise Kennedy (Banshee, Issue 8)
Balloon Animals by Laura-Blaise McDowell (Still Worlds Turning, published by No Alibis Press)
The Lamb by Andrea Carter (Counterparts: A Synergy of Law and Literature, The Stinging Fly Press)
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin from Writing.ie said: “Writing.ie has been sponsoring the Short Story of the Year for several years now and the standard of stories is always, as you’d expect, incredibly high – shortlists have featured some of our most noted writers. Writing.ie is very much focused on creating opportunity for writers, providing resources to help them improve and information on outlets for publication, and we carry this through into the short story category of the An Post Irish Book Awards. We take submissions from online journals and magazines as well as traditionally published books/collections, so not only do we get a wonderful mixture of submissions, but the playing field is wide open for all short story writers to submit and perhaps be shortlisted beside established names. The competition is judged completely anonymously so we never know who has written what until the shortlist announcement!
The judges were Alison Lyons, Director of Dublin Unesco City of Literature; Bob Johnston from The Gutter Bookshop; and literary agent Simon Trewin. You can vote for your favourite short story on the An Post Irish Book Awards website anpostirishbookawards.ie