Mum’s the Word: A short story by Philip MacCann
The latest instalment in our summer fiction series Out of Ireland
Photograph: Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Mother woke me this afternoon with sharp raps on the front room ceiling. My eyes opened wide and I shouted down in my best sensible voice.
“Yes, I’m upstairs!” I had been having another flashback in my sleep and it was pleasant. I do not see myself as a bad person. I stood against my door and hurriedly pulled on my trews. Then I peeled back the edge of my rolled-down curtain and peered out through the pale yellow light. It was not the police. The kids were seated on the roof of another burnt car on the Walk. I stepped back and rubbed my face and moustache which were itchy with dry sweat. Everything was still and loud. I could hear the kids’ laughter and hammering against the car. It was vital I caught the local News on my television, though it was not yet evening. I had time to kill. From the room below I heard her panting and then a longer groan, so I went down.
But why did the electric light have to be on when everyone can see us from the Walk? It was making shadows on the walls. The clouds were high and dark and it looked like another dry, dusty day. I hung back in the doorway and yawned and rubbed my eyes. She sat on her hot water bottle on the bureau stool, both hands on her guts. There was no wig on and her tuft was showing. She must have dragged the coffee table and wooden pouffe out of the room and lifted out the lamp for there was nothing but a large space in the centre. These guessing games wear me out. The tea trolley was pushed back against the skirting board and on the carpet lay something we had been looking for. She spoke quickly before groaning from her pains.
Any implement which has an oval belly attached to a handle must come under the general banner of a spoon. For a long time I had wanted to give her a piece of my mind
At the very sound of that word I made a deep rasp and shot her a black look. Her utensil has an obvious shape which allows me to crush her large tablets into a powder. It has all the aspects of a thing which we have a proper word for in this country. It is obvious that any implement which has an oval belly attached to a handle must, by definition, come under the general banner of a spoon. For a long time I had wanted to give her a piece of my mind. A single stride and I was in the empty centre of the room. I cleared my throat. Her eyelids fluttered as she rocked forward and back. I had not even time to open my mouth.
“You’re not going to help me so I might as well take the lot.”
I felt a dropping sensation in my chest and my legs grew heavy. In my confusion I found myself on my knees clutching the utensil. From the trolley I took a wide server which made my fingers long and thin. I ground a few tablets on this and used the spoon to scoop the powder on her tongue for her to chew. When I got to my feet again I stood back in the door frame, my head quite light and my heart pounding under my cardigan. I had completely forgotten my main thread. Her twisted hand dangled before her chin and she was like some specimen floating in a jar.
I went inside and combed my moustache into different styles, all of which I hated
In the evening I scrubbed the graffiti on our front wall while kids taunted me over the hedge. I went inside and combed my moustache into different styles, all of which I hated. Mother was feeling better, there were no more games from her and later I laid the table while she cooked. After dinner I escaped upstairs to try all the stations. She insists that I ruin my eyes but I need to be alert and follow developments. Most men my age even have their own computer. There was no mention on the News and it was with relief that I switched off my television. Any day now we are due to have a summer storm. I want it to rain and cleanse the air. Before bedtime I took a cup of tea up to the bathroom and locked myself in under the flickering yellow lamp. Mother was downstairs playing her cassettes and I ran the shower to drown out the racket. I sat on the floor with my cup between my legs and my teaspoon flat on the mouldy carpet. The hissing water calmed me. Has it ever been said that a spoon lying in a horizontal position is not unlike a prostrate human body? The arch and slender handle are elegantly feminine. Where it tapers to a blunt end it is like two feet trussed together, while the bowl reminds me of a gaping face, frozen in terror.
This afternoon I decided to see Shibani in Taj Mahal on the edge of the housing estate. I took my bike from the hall and peeked out the front door. The sky was overcast but fiery red and the dryness was worse than yesterday with the air tingling on my skin. I wheeled the bike up our short path. From inside the burnt-out car two kids emerged. Briskly I steered out the gate. I was not quick enough, however, and they shouted out.
I leapt on and pedalled my fastest up the Walk. They were the same African boys with round shaven heads which protrude from their shoulders like ugly little knuckles. They frighten me. I wish I could strangle them with wire. They jeered and threw stones and a terrier began yapping and ran alongside my bike. I found I was riding in the opposite direction, away from the takeaway, towards the river where the old steel mill looms over the estate.
I understand only too well there is little for young people on the estate to do, and imaginations fester. We are so far from the city, right on its edge
I swerved into an empty ginnel to recover. The walls of the back gardens were high and I was not overlooked. I dried my face with paper and remained for a little while standing there. All the houses in the estate are the same and it is over a mile’s walk to the main road where buses are scarce. I understand only too well there is little for young people on the estate to do, and imaginations fester. We are so far from the city, right on its edge where some streets end at fields. All we have is a new mosque and the old mill. In summer a travelling fun fare comes and sets up in one of the fields and the amplified pop music keeps Mother and me awake. There are not too many English people left on the estate. Most are from very foreign countries and speak in all kinds of tongues. They will always be strangers to me because my mother tongue is plain and simple English.
I walked down to the bottom of the alleyway where flaking railings run along the back of my old Comprehensive. To peer through, I pressed my face against two bars which made my cheeks dusty. Beyond the football pitch I saw someone seated on the witch’s hat without rotating it. How much time has passed! My school friend is now a middle-aged man with a belly like a car tyre under his jersey. But little else has changed. I could see there were no kids at all in the school. I locked up my bike and scaled the railing where there is a breezeblock to help get a leg up. I was walking to him across the pitch when I saw him take a swill from a beer tin then quickly hang his head. He still has a fat baby-face and blond curls that make me think of mashed potatoes. I reached the witch’s hat and climbed on a plank across from him. He crushed his beer tin, belched loudly and said, “Oh, is that you, Cannibal?”
I replied, “No.”
“Good,” he said in a sharp way. After thinking he said, “I don’t talk to strangers.” I merely muttered, “Is that a promise?” and he replied, “Nah”. He hopped off the seat to the flagstones so that I immediately dipped down. He was facing me. “I don’t keep promises.” Then he walked to the climbing frame. Over his shoulder he called back, “It freaks you out you when I call you Cannibal, doesn’t it, Cannibal?” From the side of my eye I saw him snatch at a bar and try to pull himself up, without success.
My friend is always unfriendly when he drinks beers and, like my mother, he smokes cigarettes. He also collects magazines about knives and other weapons
My friend is always unfriendly when he drinks beers and, like my mother, he smokes cigarettes. He also collects magazines about knives and other weapons. He has his own computer which he can use to look at women’s bodies, but it must be 15 years since he showed me some. It is not easy to meet people round here. On the whole I have only ever really socialised with Mother. When she and I used to go on holidays together every year to the boarding house, which is an hour and half by bus out the road, we never talked to a soul. She always used to say there is no substitute for blood, and I agree. I have stayed faithful. I have seen that blood is thicker than water. But it is pointless to start digging up the past. Once a week now I study new skills and if everything settles down again, I hope to find a job and escape from the estate.
It was dark and silent when my eyes opened. I was awake and for some reason my mind was exceptionally clear. For a few moments as I lay still I had no doubt that one day I too will die. I had a grim picture of myself lying in my coffin on a table in the front room with the clock ticking and Mother and my friend staring down at me. I had to switch on my bedside lamp. As soon as I sat up, this seemed like a silly thought but two hours must have passed before I fell asleep again.
When I woke it was late in the afternoon. Today I had an opportunity to meet two women and I was happy. I had to hurry out. I stood near the bottom of the stairs and could see Mother in the living room reclined in her armchair. Around her shoulders her heavy blanket and the coal-effect fire was on full-blast on the hearth. The tray had slid off her lap and I spotted some tablets scattered on the carpet. I squeezed into my shoes in the hall and called out in a casual voice.
“Just popping out for a bit.”
No answer and at first I worried that she had heard some News so I went to the doorway.
Her head was to one side and her nightie had fallen low, revealing the wrinkled V of her bosom. I did not know whether to shake her or not
“Need anything from the shop?” Still, she did not look up. I stepped right into the room. Her head was to one side and her nightie had fallen low, revealing the wrinkled V of her bosom. I did not know whether to shake her or not. I had never before seen her in that way and I almost sniggered. But I did not feel good at all, I had the heaviness in the pit of my stomach. I left the room wondering what to do. Suddenly it all seemed unreal, but important, like something they would show on the telly. My heart thudded as I peered at myself in the hall mirror. I could not begin to think what would happen to me now. I did not want to think. I hurried upstairs to Mother’s bedroom and rummaged under her ugly tights and bandages on the ottoman for my silk shirt which I once let her take. She called it too bold because it is semi-transparent. Downstairs I took my bike out the front.
The boys were scattered all over the Walk. As soon as they saw me they shouted again.
“Here he comes!”
“You better stop, Cannie!”
The little ones danced about with their knees high and their tiny stupid buttocks tight as pins. An eerie, high-pitched wavering note came from one of their throats. They all came together in a straggling line, forcing me to steer tightly between them. I nearly fell as they plucked at my shirt. And all the time the yapping terrier and that piercing high pitch. Then a bolt from the car struck the back of my head. Before I knew I had swung off my bike. I let it drop. They darted back into the tiny gardens but I vaulted over a fence. I had one boy’s scrawny neck in my grip and his face was draining white.
“You listen to me,” I hissed.
It could not have been more quiet and still. There was nothing I particularly wanted to say so I released my hand and returned to my bike. I cycled across the estate, my knees shooting up and down. Already lights were on in some living-rooms. Gleaming television sets showed the same News but I could make nothing of it so I watched the ground streak below me. I turned out of the estate on to the main road where smoke from exhaust pipes puffed in my face just like from Mother’s cigarettes. You can see from the road how little development the years have brought. I hope one day everything will be wiped away. I heard there were plans to demolish the old mill and build a shopping centre. But no one did a thing.
I caught the murky smell of the river that runs behind and I felt a stab in my gut. It is painful to remember
By the time I rolled up to the shops I was sweating and I wondered if it felt a little damp. I caught the murky smell of the river that runs behind and I felt a stab in my gut. It is painful to remember. I dismounted outside the tuck shop where Mother used to buy my toffees. This, the greasy caff and a Rape Crisis Centre are the only shops open in the row. The others are boarded up and the end gable is propped up by a huge wooden stanchion.
I locked up my bike clear of some broken bottles and patted my face with paper. By keeping to one side and craning my neck, I was able to peep into the Taj Mahal without being seen. There is a high counter and just two plastic tables with bottles of ketchup and vinegar and no cloths. I could see Shibani leaning against the wall and staring at her phone, a dark girl from an unusual country. She glanced out and might have noticed me so I walked quickly past to the end of the row where a dark car was parked.
I pushed open the door of the centre. A little bell tinkled above me. The receptionist called Liz was behind a desk. She said, “Kenneth. You’re a little late.” But she was only a midget, and she looked thin with worry. I shrugged and she lifted the telephone and I heard her say, “That’s Kenneth now. Is that okay? No bother.” Then she said to me, “If you want to go through,” and gestured. She followed me into an office where an even older woman, not much taller but built like a butcher’s wife, sat in the centre on one of three plastic chairs. These faced one another in a triangle. Liz kept the door wide open and made another gesture that I should take the chair whose back was to the doorway while she sat facing it. She asked after Mother. I had to think how to answer.
“A little poorly,” I told her. They both said they were sorry to hear that and asked if I was all right. They offered me a big mug of tea. Liz said, “Sugar?” and I answered, “Just a spoon.”
But the social worker woman asked, “What’s wrong?”
“He wants a spoon,” Liz told her.
I thanked the social worker and explained that there was nothing to say. At that she sucked in her cheeks so that they wrinkled
“A spoon is it?” I folded my arms tight. While Liz went out of the room the social worker remarked that I had responsibility to help my mother. I replied that I did help. She said they wanted me to keep helping her. I cleared my throat and told her that I will. She said that in the same way they wanted to help me if I could help myself and tell them everything in goodwill. I thanked her and explained that there was nothing to say. At that she sucked in her cheeks so that they wrinkled.
“And what about all them allegations?”
I said, “Just words.”
She narrowed her eyes and said, “Well that’s not what the police think, is it?” She sounded less friendly now. I did not like her insinuation.
“I was with Mother.”
“All right if that’s true. Is that what she’ll say?” I was worrying about this when I heard footsteps behind me and a long thin drink spoon dropped into my tea. I felt my shoulders tighten. Liz sat before me and the woman told her, “I’m explaining to Kenneth that we could maybe help if we hear his side.”
“That’s right,” Liz told me.
More quietly she said, “Mum might testify for him.” Liz fixed me with her doll-like eyes. We were both thinking as we eyed one another.
“Is there anything you want to say?” I am not good at chatting to women. I do not put them at ease. And I was upset thinking of Mother and how unlucky I always am, my whole life long. I wanted to change to a lighter subject. I stirred my tea, lifted out the long spoon and stared at it. I tried to make a joke.
“That’s a nice one, thank you. Very long in the neck. But it narrows nicely further down . . . ” My voice died away and Butcher was writing something down. I knew then I shouldn’t have opened my mouth, I had said too much. Liz was glowering at me.
I knew they were not going to take my side. Without even speaking, Liz unlocked the main door for me and I stepped out into the dark
“Just say it, can’t you!” I shrugged and shook my head. Suddenly she became rowdy. “Is it just too awful for you to talk about? What did you do!” The woman set a ruddy hand on Liz’s leg and said, “I think this is where we should pause,” and put the cap on her pen. Liz rubbed her forehead. They both stood up and exchanged a few more words under their breaths. I now guessed they had no feelings for me. I knew they were not going to take my side. Without even speaking, Liz unlocked the main door for me and I stepped out into the dark. I heard a faint roll of thunder but there was no rain. The car was still there. I felt so heavy that it was an effort to walk back along the row where I had locked my bike. I wondered what would happen now. I had no hope. I glanced in the window of the takeaway and saw a burly woman mopping the floor and Shibani buttoning her jacket. I took a chance. Without glancing back at the car, I cut behind the gable.
There was just enough moonlight to walk down to the river. Shibani uses the towpath because it is the quickest way back to the estate. All I could hear was the riot of my pulse in my head. I walked as far as the derelict mill. I took a few long strides across undergrowth to the open doorway. There was still no rain. It is almost two decades since I spent time here. I felt safe among the rubble, the ashes and litter and I could recover from my disappointment. I was furious with Liz. She does not care to understand me. I care about women, that is just how I am. I closed my eyes. In the dark it was easy to imagine the crunch of approaching footsteps on the river path. I understand women and I know what they want. All I ask is that they are quiet. My fingers were running up and down the long handle of the spoon.
It was night time before I felt ready and I went downstairs. My body was heavy and my footsteps loud. I took a glass of water into the front room, using only the light of the hall. The electric fire was still on and the heat was stifling. It seemed to me a shame to spoil the new nylon carpet so I decided to step up on the armchair and I ripped down one of the dusty red curtains. As I spread it on the floor I saw that I still had blood on my hands. From the top of the trolley I snatched the jar of tablets. It was two-thirds full. I crouched on the floor with my back against the armchair and my knees high. My hands were shaking. I heard distant yells on the estate, a screech of tyres and a dog barking.
It pleases me to wear the rings because I feel our connections. I raised my hand to my lips and let my tongue run over the grooves
From my pocket I took a silver ring and examined it for the first time. It is a smooth circle without a join and the part that is meant to face forward has five diagonal grooves. It put it on my finger over the first one where it fits loosely. It pleases me to wear the rings because I feel our connections. I raised my hand to my lips and let my tongue run over the grooves. The metal was stingy and sour but it felt sweet to me. I breathed deeply.
I opened my eyes to lift the glass. Mother was staring at me. The glass toppled over. She peered at the curtain below me and at the window, then at me again. It was her hard face, staring a little past me. She gave a weary sigh and said, “You let me down,” then she pressed her hands on her guts and made a grunt. All I could think now was that I might still have hope. I had to make a move. I tore the cap off the jar and stretched forward to her feet to pick up the crusher.
Philip MacCann was born in Manchester and studied at Trinity College Dublin and the University of East Anglia. His first book, The Miracle Shed (1995), a collection of short stories, won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. In 2000 he was awarded the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. He lives in Dubai