‘Psychobabble’ by Caoilinn Hughes, winner of The Moth Short Story Prize 2018

Judge Kevin Barry: ‘It’s both poignant and very funny, emotional yet sardonic’

Caoilinn Hughes: author of Orchid & the Wasp

Caoilinn Hughes: author of Orchid & the Wasp

 

The glances Portia keeps stealing of Good Housekeeping on the waiting room table are conspicuous as its contents. ‘101 Magical Must-Haves that will simplify your life.’ ‘“Family Comes First” Heidi Klum on raising considerate kids and making love last.’ ‘You CAN afford a holiday! Smart cash-saving tips.’ ‘99 Bikinis for REAL WOMEN.’ What age even is she? Portia wonders. And didn’t her marriage break up? Sad institution. Matrimony. Such a parochial ambition. The big Do. The big Drink. The big Dress. Someone’s daughter turned out very nice now didn’t she didn’t she do very well for herself. Family first infuckingdeed. It was probably coz Seal only ever had the one song.

Emer  follows Portia’s gaze and thinks of suggesting that it’s good going, getting ‘A MONTH OF WEEKDAY SUPPERS on the table in under 20 minutes’ but she decides to honour their mother’s request that they keep the conversation peaceable if there’s to be any hope for them at all. They’re to continue dancing on eggshells, despite the intervention. Remorse is far removed from regret, Emer had told Mother. Any other person would have long spent their restraint. But his hands are large of grip – went the unspoken defence – and, though they can’t hold nuance well, heedless of what’s delicate, when they hold you boy do you feel held; you feel the only mode of transportation for a wife is by way of a husband. It’s stubbornness, is all. It’s never physical. Rarely rarely. When the handling goes careless. Goes unsaid. Cupped palms flatten to a wooden spoon. Barely any dip in them. Any eye would water at the risk. No good for a cradle. Bad egg now, this thought. Her Kindle has switched itself off, somewhere in the hors d’oeuvres of Finnegans Wake. Today of all days. Ludicrous to have dolled herself for it. This commitment. She’d decided halfway through the dolling so she left her eyes half-done. One bare. One green-shadowed. The bruised look. Today of all days for admitting the elephant. Emer grips the Chesterfield armrests with both hands. Two decades’ worth of fibs for a corset. It’s nothing. It’s the light. It’s stairs. Ham-fisted. I am. What? No fault. Count it out count to me count it over and again never again promise promise just scoop it up here to me mock-love in its shallow rutty hollow; godforsook father.

Cormac flips through AutoTrader, given that Mammy’s immune to his irreverence. His suit suggests an optimism he’ll hit the office after. Good for the rest of them to see there’s someone stable in the family. A proverbial pillar. Three full-grown Fury women in this waiting room that might need their bread won for them if Dad’s proved unfit. Maybe he’d get a Disability Allowance. He might just. Still. Emer’s on her own, and she’ll stay a spinster less God makes good on Mammy’s prayers. And you wouldn’t put artificial insemination past her. Portia has Ger but he wouldn’t be the sharpest tool in a shed full of spades, and it’s a safe bet Portia’s demanding on the Lifestyle front. Over-leveraged goms. And Mammy there now. Poor craethur. Nerves like live wires. Sure, she might need all sorts after this. She might need … what would it be, a counsellor? Or this fella? Week in week out. And a hotel room whenever she needs a break from the aul man. All sorts. That’s an unknown unknown is what that is. Surely that’s not the price of a Nissan Micra?

Mother notices that Cormac’s underarms have the ashy residue of lengthy workdays without dry cleaning. He has another good suit he could wear while that one’s being washed – she could give it a go herself, she wonders should she offer – but maybe he’s got too large for the other one and that’s why. The bluer one. Ted Banker, was it? Or was it outlet Armani? No. Full price. On the small side even when he got it. The girls would overreact, but is it worth mentioning to Cormac the numbness in her arm? Or to Dr Sharma? Or would he do a referral and all that rigmarole? He might pinch it and put it down to a side-effect of a person feeling rattled and contrite in equal measure. Or he might give her something so the numbness spreads. Chance would be a fine thing. How many years since she’s had a bath? If Norman has to be admitted into some unit God forbid, maybe she’ll take one. Would a bath be evidenced on the water bill though? Or the electric? She takes a Hello! for something to look at. Kate Middleton. Varnished hair a fixture on the cover. Pearls for teeth. Remember the days it would be Diana. Her controversial goodness. The perfect self, the unphotographable thirteenth pillar, the crown of the skull cracking … Did she have an arm around her unstrapped shoulder?

‘I still find it astonishing,’ Emer says. Looking at her siblings in their magazines, at an arm’s length from their thoughts. Who knew cognitive dissonance was genetic. Could a real conversation not be had, given we’re all here in an act of love, support and betterment? Differentiation would be a start: we are not our bully famous father’s children. We are yours, Mother. Wondering Wreck. Jolio and Romeune’s offsprung. Don’t get us wrong. The resemblance is here, all round the eye sockets. Like your eyes, ours are egg-timers silently atick. We’re done done done with boiling. We are hardened; out now for ourselves, at long last; and he’ll be looked after by someone qualified. He’ll be taken care of taken gently by those equipped to take such temperatures, add salts, solutions. Whatever happens him is out of our hands. Ourselves, we need this air. Coming up for.

Cormac peels his eyes from AutoTrader, makes an n with his mouth: what’s that?

Mother gives a stricken look. Inclined to look at Portia over Emer, not only because Portia’s more symmetrical and her pores aren’t clogged (though she wears that tarantula mascara) but because she’s comfortably predictable and what’s needed now is normalcy.

Emer takes up what she had been saying: ‘… astonishing. How long we let it go on for—’

‘Did I tell you Ger and I have news?’ Portia cuts off her sister’s dangerous talk and everyone turns to the younger, beautifuller face. ‘We’re having a vasectomy!’

‘Ah now,’ Cormac says and laughs.

Mother blinks for the punchline. What’s all this?

Portia adds, ‘In case whatever Dad’s got’s heritable.’ Nods in the direction of the doctor’s office.

Mother roots up her sleeves for a Kleenex. If there was a way to have that nasal passage expanded the way you can take a pair of leather shoes to a cobbler and have them stretched. It would make her life that much more tolerable. But insurance might call it cosmetic. Any fixing to do with the head is a luxury in this country. Including this even? Let’s hope to God not. God forgive us, and Portia, acting peculiar. Would she ever spare us the blaspheming.

Mammy’ll block that out of her memory, so she will. Cormac cracks all his knuckles in one go like the surprise last popcorn kernels when you take the bag from the microwave. Mammy won’t have taken that to heart. She needs the hope of a grandchild. The new way she’d be loved as Granny Fury. Let her have that forgodssake, Porsh. And you’re only, whatareyi, thirty-one? Yil change your mind yet. It’s in you to have babbies. Good wide hips on you. And what other excuse have you for the Ford Galaxy? ‘What did he ask you anyways?’

‘Who?’ Portia had been the first to arrive this morning, because the doctor couldn’t squeeze her in on Friday when he’d interviewed the others. He smelled of incense. An unexpected morning smell. Gentle approach too. Do you and your father have much in common, would you say? Daft question. Any shared hobbies? Hobbies! Dad wouldn’t know a hobby if it dealt him a pair of aces.

‘Your manno,’ Cormac says, making a hitchhiking sign at the doctor’s door. ‘What was he after?’

‘What’re you asking that for now?’ Portia tuts. ‘It’s too late to trick the shrink. And anyway, what we said’s confidential.’ She picks up the Good Housekeeping finally, wondering could it be something as dull as a smear, ‘The MEDICAL TEST EVERY WOMAN NEEDS (but not all docs give)’ but she decides to go for the less morbid read. ‘TOTALLY STRESS-FREE PARTY HANDBOOK *Everything you need to know* 90 ideas for what to wear.’ 

Confidential. Mother’s eyes dither at that word hanging in the room like a fly approaching a cobweb. Doomed. ‘No one’s tricking anyone,’ she mutters.

Portia looks softly at her mother. ‘No, Mam. No one’s tricking anyone. I was just saying not to worry now. It’s over. We’ve done our bit. Do you need a tissue? I can get some from the loo. It’ll be the plush bog roll you can use on your nose, judging by the fancy furnishing.’ Oak floors with cream shaggy rugs, well-tended plants that go halfway to the ceiling, matching floor and table lamps with huge beige shades on wooden tripods, real paintings on the walls with signatures and all, the classic leather suite, Art Deco vintage shelving unit with trophies, vases and ornaments-cum-puzzles spaced evenly. The doctor’s wife has good taste, Portia thinks. Then checks to see if Emer had read her sexist thought.

They only have shrinks in America, Mother’s fairly sure, sitting back on the fawn-leather sofa. Shrink is Yiddish for psychiatrist. If this is real leather, it needs breaking in. How long now? An hour Norman’s in there. He’ll be wearied. Would he want lunch immediately when he gets out? Cormac could drive down to the junction. There was a Mocha Beans beside the Spar. He could get them all something to go. Emer might go softer on her father if she had sugar in her system. Lemon pound cake with the drizzle. It would pass the time. Ask. Questions have a way of sticking in her throat. Answers, too. She recalls being asked if she and Norman had shared hobbies. The simplicity of it. Things they liked to do? Dr Sharma had made a joke about children being an unrelaxing pastime but her own mind was racing over what would be suitable, knowing it was her chance to be honest, so she finally said accounting was something they did together and reached into her bag for her diary. The doctor had looked encouraging. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder she’d been afraid of and she was even afraid of having caught it herself, she said, but she wasn’t sure if there was a spectrum like with other disorders or what the story was. Only that she felt responsible to give the symptoms. So she described the nightly reckoning. He likes to know how an afternoon’s been spent. He admires efficiency, fiscal prudence and accountability. ‘Likes to know or needs to know …?’ she’d been asked. The print was very small and Dr Sharma had had to put glasses on to read it. She glowed at being complimented on her vision, because her hearing was very poor and she suggested it was compensatory. The doctor said it could be. Then he read entries aloud at random. ‘7–7.45 a. m. Rosary, strip bedsheets … 1–2 p. m. drove to Fox’s for material to replace N’s tweed jacket lining. Difficulty parking. 2–3 p. m. called in on Teresa with tin of Danish biscuits (€5.95 Aldi) … 4–5.30 p. m. walk to the graveyard, picked up dinner provisions from Pat’s …’ On and on, the intimate embarrassments. What are we up to now? Norman’s voice went in her mind, sitting there listening to the doctor. What are we up to, in hours billable? The children had always put the fervent note-taking down to her self-described sieve of a brain. I’d forget my own name, she’d say, though she wouldn’t forget it, for she had to answer to it. A noise emits from her throat now as she remembers the coloured load of washing sat in the machine since yesterday.

‘What’s wrong, Mum?’

‘I just remembered—’ Don’t say it. ‘I forgot—’ They’ll lash out at you if you say it. They’ll lash out if you say nothing. Stop panting. ‘Nothing.’ Casual. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Moreso. ‘I was just thinking … would you ever run down to the Mocha Beans, Cormac, for some tea?’

‘Oooooh, yah,’ Portia says. ‘And muffins.’

‘Jesus H,’ Emer says.

‘What?’ Portia snaps at her sister. ‘Are we fasting again?’

‘I’ll skip the celebratory cake. Thanks anyway.’

Portia smacks her lips. ‘You could do with a slice of fucking cake, Emer.’

‘Could I?’

‘Don’t you know? Sanctimoniousness burns loads of calories.’

Cormac pats his thigh. ‘HA.’

Emer looks bemused. ‘Did you get that from your glossy magazine?’ Pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose. They’re loose. Where would she have put the mini screwdriver that came with? ‘Shame on me for doubting you had six syllables in you.’

‘Is that … green eye-shadow on one eye only?’ Portia perches on the edge of the couch and squints at Emer’s autumnal appearance. This is how we wither. ‘You forgot to do the other eye?’

‘I didn’t forget.’

‘Please don’t bicker,’ Mother says, pained. ‘I only thought … a cup of tea maybe—’

‘No. No tea, Mam,’ Portia says. ‘No muffins, no tea for us. Sorry. Emer says so.’

‘Oh Christ. The clock’s struck twelve and she’s shape-shifting,’ says Emer.

‘Ah, girls,’ Cormac pipes in.

Portia storms off to the toilet to get a tissue for Mam’s sniffles.

Flee. Flee like we do, Emer thinks. ‘Don’t call women girls, Cormac. It’s not nineteen-ninety.’

‘Right.’ Cormac tries out his tight-lipped conciliatory man-of-the-house for the doctor. When the mood is quare as this, you’re wise to zip it. None of them will be grateful for sticking a label on it. A Stigma for the Furys to wear on their sleeves forever-after. Bipolar Disorder. Autism Spectrum Disorder. Manic Depression. OCD. Please fuck not Schizophrenia. A Disability sticker wouldn’t go amiss for Athlone parking, though. Would he be sorted with a bit of medication – straightened out entirely so he wouldn’t know himself at all?

Emer switches on her Kindle, since Mother’s busy with her handbag like the lady buried up to her waist in sand in that Beckett play; the husband who won’t dig her out crawling around behind the mound. Like they’d all been crawling around their buried mother these years. Happy Days, it was called. Happy days, happy families. Pick a day, any day. Any day with him? Pick a scar at random. No, one shouldn’t say scar unless it’s physical but the ones you can’t see you can’t get at with ointment, so they fester. But okay the waiting room’s full and austerity cuts and you’re not my therapist, I’ll get on with it, she’d said. Nonsense, to Father, includes everything from suicidal thoughts to that string cheese that was popular in the ’90s you’d peel off long orange strips of like sunburnt skin. Girls – women being included under that impractical, transparent umbrella – are particularly given to nonsense. Is there an irony in that, her reading Finnegans Wake; alllogorrheic recondite jabber? With at least one sentence in Double Dutch. There’s too much irony in their blood. Too much sense in sarcasm. Sarcasm was one of the symptoms she’d listed. Once, he’d made her stand still with a leveller on her head until the encased liquid proved her composure. They should’ve sought out a female doctor to stop him acting biddable and tame. She looks to the door and wonders at Father’s compliance behind it.

Portia returns from the loo with thickened eyeliner and a wad of tissue for Mam. Emer there fuming. Things would come right with her once all this was over. There was a time they were friends. Real ones. Not so long ago they forget the bellysore. Loud-whispering until dawn at the kitchen table over smoked applewood cheese and Cocopops and reheated Sheperd’s pie and crisp sandwiches after a night out, the kind of debrief they preferred. There was a time they’d phone the other up just to say: Member when Chloe couldn’t find her tampon string and she was rooting around inside till she found an end of something and yanked it out but it was her coil and she wound up in A&E wasn’t that sick? Or: Member that morning Sinéad came to class, proud and puffy, saying she’d plucked her eyebrows for the first time, and we stared at her unibrow, all confused, until we saw her lashless eyelids? Emer’s being difficult now because she wants acknowledgement for staging the intervention, Portia thinks. For being the brave, responsible one to say: this isn’t normal and we’ve known it all our lives and it’s all well and good to pretend each to his own until Mam drops dead, but then it’s our fault as much as his. Emer was right, as usual. Mam’s wearing the end of her tether for a scarf. But it’s not as if Portia didn’t try. It’s not as if she saw nothing said nothing. Once, she brought home a Borderline Personality Disorder brochure. Told Dad an old school friend was diagnosed and it’s the type of thing that goes undiagnosed and untreated and it makes a hames of people’s lives and it’s hard on families. But he’d said Who? then lambasted the make-believe O’Brian’s: If they were Godfearing Christians they wouldn’t need head problems to remind them of His great design. The brain is one of His finer systems. He’d snatched the brochure from her hands and checked if the HSE funded it and Isn’t that a grand use of my taxes repeating information that’s free and plentiful online. The fat on this country’s public sector is despicable.

The door to the office opens. As if he’s looking over reading glasses, Dr Sharma addresses the room. ‘How are we doing? Good to see you again, Emer.’ He has bulging, shaven brown cheeks and bright hazel eyes. He wears no beard or spectacles, much to his patients’ disappointment, though he is pleasingly sweater-clad. V-neck maroon cashmere with a stiff-collared shirt and tie beneath. ‘It’s a long morning, I know. You’re good to come. We’re nearly there. The Norm Referenced Tests are complete and Mr Fury wanted to stay in the room while I put the paperwork together. So. Thank you for waiting. Your father has agreed to have a preliminary discussion of the diagnosis, with all of you present. How does that sound?’

They all wait for something to come clear and comestible as Guinness.

‘Like a barrel of laughs,’ Cormac cuts the silence down to size. He’s asked us in for it? Or he was told we had to come and hear it? Some humiliation, this is. Some flu jab to the arse that could well have gone in the arm. What? Cormac had survived boyhood by way of the wisecrack. Funny fucker Fury. Top of that, he’d made a smart investment, aged fourteen, in a laminator. Fake ID Fury. You beaut. Dad survived by quieter things. By the shadow his stature threw out. By the marble bust of his noggin. Nothing got close enough to chip him. That glower on him like a prohibition barrister. They’d all walk wide round him. Never question his might. The same skills carried him to sixty-six, but here his physical command is undermined. He might be drugged. Go soft like. Could it be though … Could it be a gesture to show he’s not in denial? He is the sort to face up to things. This might constitute a challenge for his family to do the same. And the fact is, there’s honour in a serious condition. So long as he’s not … There’s a certain respect going for people who’ve shouldered heavy health, be it mental or otherwise, and bore it staunchly. People do hear tell. It won’t be private long. Word spreads in the Midlands like the scent of silage. Or would it be just so he doesn’t have to announce it himself? Get the doc to do it for him. What were the tests your manno named?

Mother leans over to peer in the office where Norman’s back is to them. The side of his cheek looks pale. Only she knows when he’s pale for his face is very red always, so pale is relative. He’d had the medical assessment done last week. His blood pressure was disappointingly normal. They’d both hoped a bit of medication might lessen the reddening. Her blood pressure was a kite in a gale but they knew that and knew why.

Dr Sharma is standing there, smiling mildly, waiting for their bodies to catch up to their minds. The typical situational discrepancy. ‘Shall we?’ The son rises and heads loose and wary to the office. Seal to the sea lion. The others need a moment. Grant them it. Yes, it’s a slow Monday. Let it take its time. A luxury for the daughters. A novelty for the harried, skin-and-bone wife whose own diagnosis is coming. Soon. Meanwhile, the sharp one – Emer – hasn’t opened the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology laid out, as he’d hoped. ‘When you’re ready, ladies, take a seat inside.’

Before the door swings closed, Emer sees Cormac presiding his shamelessness over the desk, reading the doctor’s notes upside-down. There is no one to bribe or blackmail to take this test for them, Emer thinks. Cormac pats Father on the shoulder; a gesture tolerated – this time – as a woman tolerates a chest-ogle in a freezer aisle. Father’s non-objection is the inch they’ve learned to make a country mile of. And miles to go before she sleeps. And miles to go before he—

‘Okay, Mam?’ Portia reaches out for her mother’s hand. The feel of lifting a sparrow’s nest out of the guttering; transferring it to a nearby tree, on the remote chance of its repossession.

Emer turns to them. Unrush yourselves. Note this Before before the After.

Seeing Mam shiver at the prospect of release, Portia’s eyeliner draws two black brackets down her cheeks like a Picasso sketch. She moves her hand to Mam’s sinewy shoulder and kneads it deeply, as she’s been asking for lately. The sensation in Mother’s chest is of kneading. In her shoulder, nothing. The tissues on her lap are soggy and bunched, reminding Portia of the fistfuls of wet toilet paper they’d throw at the bathroom ceiling as girls, for the loudest splat. Once the balls were dry, they’d find Mam up on a stool, scraping them off with a joint knife. Like small boys, the pair of you. You’ve me driven up the wall … Her state of anxiety must’ve eased that day, for she succumbed to their pun giggle fit. Emer lifts the tissue tatters from Mother’s lap and pretends to wipe Portia’s cheek with one before throwing it at the wastepaper basket. It misses. Portia flinches, laughs, swats at her sister, and dries her eyes with the skirt of her dress, flashing her flesh-coloured waist-cincher shorts. Emer roams her sister’s body for signs of her own. Square knees. Blue marbled thighs. ‘There was me,’ she says, ‘admiring your flat belly.’ After a long pause, Portia responds, ‘There was me … admiring your contrary green eye.’ The three women sit with each other, taking a measure of the moment, until a great swell of love catches them on its crest and carries them to somewhere far from where they had just been.

For Mother, the kindness is a large, cold hand around her throat. Gripping her life, on an impulse external to her. Overpowering. Intemperate. Compassion is intolerably strange. His stern world, she can inhabit. The confines of the immaculate house. The haircut she may have bimonthly. The equitable tally of an eighteen-hour day. Waking to an alarm clock kept downstairs to deliver them from temptation. There are ways to keep the hand from the throat. The car from the cliff’s edge. The poorly-hemmed trousers from the peat fire. The ruler from the jaw.

At the end of this country road: the waiting room. The plant in the corner. A lamp moon. Good leather mounds. This place goes on and on, Emer knows. Passing time. Letting brooders brood, remove their boots if they can reach. Read into one another’s symptoms. Cues. Silences. The covers of one another’s monthlies. But it would take an age to become the stock characters that overstay quietude’s welcome. They are Furys. They are Norman Fury’s daughters and wife. Their parts come with directions. [She reflects briefly. She rolls up her sleeves. She bastes the lamb.] The mumbling from the office sounds of a small studio theatre when the houselights go off, and the show’s about to start, and all idle chat should have ceased.

Mother’s face trembles and she tries to speak, but it comes out barely as a whisper, so Emer crouches down on her haunches right by Mother’s square knees.

‘All that misery …’ Mother says. ‘The cruelty you put up with … neglectful … to let it …’

‘No, Mam—’ Portia starts.

‘I’m responsible—’ Mother says, and jumps, feeling a hand in the middle of her back, like how Ger rubs Portia’s back whenever they’re beside one another, stood or seated. Portia always watches Mam watching Ger do that. His unbreakable habit of love. His hobby of showing it.

But it’s too soon to mourn their lost happiness and their onus, Emer thinks. Let’s do it after. Let’s first things first. We still have to go in and hear it. Nonsense will do us good now. As will distance. Holding her Kindle with two hands like a Bible, she reads aloud to them: ‘As a poor soul is between shift and shift ere the death he has lived through becomes the life he is to die into, he or he had albut—he was rickets as to reasons but the balance of his minds was stables—lost himself or himself some someone sciupiones—

‘Deargod stop!’ Portia says.

‘—soswhitchoverswetch had he or he gazet, murphy come, murphy go, murphy plant, murphy grow, a maryamyriameliamurphies, in the lazily eye of his—’

‘Stop! Please!’

‘What’s that?’ Mother whimpers, looking to Portia.

‘I’ll stop,’ Emer says, ‘as long as you both promise me, whatever the outcome—’

Dr Sharma peers out the door with an expectant expression. ‘Is something the matter, ladies?’

Mother sits up. ‘Nothing,’ she says. Very certain. By concentrating on the ‘EXCLUSIVE POLL ON KATE’S STYLE, ROYAL ROLE AND WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS,’ she refrains from an apology. ‘We’re coming now.’ She tries to push off her left arm, but it gives her no leverage. Jumping at the chance to support their mother, her daughters take her by the elbows and the three Fury women rise like Macbeth’s coven. Wanted one moment, flouted the next.

In the office, Cormac gives up his seat for Mother and squeezes himself between his sisters on a small couch along the back wall. His BO has long overpowered the doctor’s dose of incense. Dr Sharma’s elbows are on the table (which Norman wouldn’t abide under his own roof) and his chubby fingers are laced. He has been speaking for a while, in a quiet voice with bright enunciation. He is testing Mother’s hearing. She leans at a forty-five-degree angle, even though she’s sat at his desk. The children are leaning in, too, for different reasons. Norman’s long spine is ballerina straight. His head is tucked back like a cock about to take a step forward, frozen in that motion. His amber eyes are fixed upon a pair of framed certificates hung on the wall behind the desk.

‘… many well-standardized and psychometrically sound tests … thereby ruling out the possibility of a disease, organic or physiological cause – for example with the nerves or muscles or, indeed, genetic problems – which in some instances render psychological testing moot. Not in this case. Physically, for your age … you are in rude health, Mr Fury.’ Dr Sharma directs this comment at his patient and waits for it to be registered.

Everyone hears ticking from the melting clock on the wall. Emer hears The Persistence of Memory.

Sensing the tripwire of Norman’s silence, Mother cautiously says that that is very good news.

Norman glances sidelong at her. ‘Wouldn’t you rather me dead than demented.’

Mother’s breath goes raggedy. Cormac snorts grossly.

‘Dementia is not evidenced in our tests.’ The doctor unlaces his fingers. He looks very sombre. ‘Nor is this a developmental or emotional problem. I haven’t determined extreme environmental or educational traumas thus far. Violence, noise, neglect, hostility, moving house or school frequently, abuses in the home or workplace.’

Dr Sharma’s stomach grumbles ludicrously so that he has to press a knuckle into his gut to quiet it. He addresses husband and wife with a louder voice than before: ‘I can conclude at this stage that your condition, Mr Fury, is behavioural.’

As much as she wanted to approve of this polite, qualified, hardworking man, Mother wishes she had a real Irish doctor now Godforgiveher because an Irish-Irish doctor wouldn’t use a word as eloquent as that at a time like this. Clarity is what’s wanted now; not complication. Portia. Not Emer. Though both are whispering at her back and the doctor’s going on and on, noising over her thoughts. (‘If you are amenable, I can recommend a plan of psychotherapy sessions where you can talk through your social struggles and grievances and where you might learn various ideas and attitudes to help negotiate your familial interactions and responsibilities.’) Be-hav-i-our-al, Mother breaks down the diagnosis. Behaviour. Behave? What do they call that, Etymology? It must come from Latin or Greek. It can’t mean behaves. We all behave. He behaves. We have behaviours. Be-have. Mother feels her throat constrict. It was a kindness, that … putting it like that … not eloquence.

Bullying on her coat as if it’s a straightjacket, Emer faces her siblings and translates the glaring glorious Higgs-sent sense into the towntalk they can grasp: ‘He’s a dick! He’s a dick!’ She smiles hysterically at them, lightly nodding. ‘All these tests finally prove what’s wrong with our bedevilled father. Daddy. He is a state-of-the-art bastard.’

Portia is too stunned to be of any use to anyone. 1960s Good Housekeeping covers papier-mâché her mind. ‘Are the “killer” diseases inherited? THE RUGGED APPEAL OF RICHARD BURTON Summertime & salads – both great!!’

Cormac drops his head so hard it bounces like a lowrider.

Mother’s hands are pressed against her ears, delivering herself unto total deafness. Recommendations are coming at her, but she has no capacity to hear them. The washing will be stinking in the machine. The justifications she’d given him for all these costs …Was VAT added? She begs the Lord and her children and the Doctor … for what? What for? Norman’s prayers are louder. Beside her, he stands tall, looming like a dense storm cloud over a swimming pool full of children.

‘You’ve the final say on that, have you?’

Norman addresses the doctor, who begins to respond, but Mother is up now too, and clutching the strap of her bag, which may or may not be on her shoulder; her head, which may or may not be out of the sand.
Caoilinn Hughes is author of Orchid & the Wasp. The three winning stories appear in the autumn issue of The Moth, available to purchase in select bookshops and online at themothmagazine.com

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