Comments from judge, Rachel Seiffert:
"This story was striking for the poetry in the prose; the patina of an everyday life honoured by loving attention to descriptive detail."
LAST MOTHER'S DAY by Eamonn Kirk, joint second place in ChipLitFest's 2018 Short Story Competition
I climb the stairs, carpet threadbare, with tripping slippage and deafening pattern. I am careful, hushed in each repeated step. Descended the night before at speed, in sleeping bag or cardboard box. For when you, cat, were away, we mice did play. Enough toast to burn the house down, and tea to drown China. Watching grown-up TV, scary adult crap I wouldn’t entertain now. I don’t remember nightmares, but surely those tales burrowed deep as mind worms, settling in for the dark’s duration. Dad around, doing his own distant thing in the room next door, but could have been down the street, or half a world away.
Often we wake early, whirlwinding dervishly, spiriting away the past evening’s present carnage. Washing-up mountains scaled and razed. Clothes stuffed away in tight, sulky balls, with furniture set back to the walls. Books and papers lined up to attention, keenly waiting to be read again. All alert to the sound of knocking, in case once again, you’ve forgotten your key, perhaps ambivalent towards the return. The only time we use the front door, why is that? As if coming or going is shameful, so deeply private as to be kept hidden, like damp knickers on a washing line.
I have no hand on the banister, but a firm grip on your cuppa. Your reward for a distant night of care for the hips, the eyes, the strokes, the God knows what’s wrong with them. I accept you’re borrowed for a time, but I don’t quite like it. I think you love nursing as much as mothering. Maybe more. You in a long line of immigrants propping up the nation’s health, with children everywhere orphaned for a while.
The air is thick with soupy steam. I never wonder at our Sunday dinner. Quick and easy, lunch from a can. Never enough, but comfortingly predictable. The mock disgust at mixing chicken and tomato, a pan of liquid brown that still did the trick. The rare surprise of mushroom, creamy and unpolluted by anything else. White bread, full of air, gobbled at speed to make us hiccup. Then maybe a trip to a dilapidated park, or the crumbling seafront. Always a split decision, always somewhere fading away from glory.
It gets us out, and away from the missing of you. The park is slowly falling apart, and everywhere drips graffiti, fag ends, and piss. Still there are good times to be had.
The sea though is my favourite. Alive when even the shops and arcades are shut up, silent and dead. The tide takes away an ache I cannot locate.
On the edge of the prom, we are way too close. We want to get soaked for the joyful drama, the crying at ourselves and each other, while we laugh in waves. Always with ice-cream or candyfloss. One day I look over at Dad. I have finished my 99 before him. It’s then that I first feel like a man.
Every Sunday, though, I come back to earth with a bump. I cry, a despair that sinks my short body down onto broken skin knees, into pitch clodding earth.
Only years later, when I can spend months not seeing you, do I get it. Each night away was a miniature death. Not like a rehearsal where, over time, I might become immune to the grief. This was the real thing, salt and vinegar in wrist slits, or wanton knee descabbing. You were gone and not there. Might never come back.
Yet here you are again, returned, under a mountain of itchy orange and brown. It’s the 1970s, no pastel quilts to fluff up the beds of this decade. I imagine you a mole under a giant, garish hill, and I venture near so mousily. It doesn’t matter if you’re asleep; you prefer it cold, no sugar. How strangely un-Irish, but how very Catholic. Then you always toed that line, except when you felt like bucking a trend. I’ve never quite got used to your need to blend in, yet still keeping a rebel beat in your heart.
You stir, muttering about chasing chickens. I chuckle, as you are mid-dream. Maybe you are back home where, as a kid, you sometimes wrung their necks. For a flash, I am your Daddy, ever long lost to you. Caressing a cup of nurture, laughing at your childish, runaway stories, tucked in deep under cosy heaps of blanket. But no, I am a boy of ten, and not able to quite make sense.
So I leave your tea to cool, as you like it. You’ll stir eventually, take a sip, no doubt double flooded with dread of having not slept enough and guilt of being too long away from us. While I am probably off crying under pillows, the only clear reason being it’s Sunday, and that’s what I do. Rise, tidy, mass, soup, park, seaside, cup of tea, cry. Over and over.
Yet today really is the end of it all. You would do it on a Sunday, of course, to put us to the least trouble. The phone rang out with news of your passing, as one day I knew it would. I have driven fearlessly to reach you. All a bit too late, but I need to see you where you belong. A brief caress downstairs with the tribe that have gathered, then I climb those stairs again, gently, so as still not to wake you.
And there you lie, under a floral duvet, as peaceful as I have ever seen. Did I ever really see you? Your mighty, coursing wrinkles have retreated. Skin is paler now, and lips carry a dash of lilac. You are borrowed for good, as slowly you descend before my eyes into a pool of skinny flesh and aching bones, no more the you I know. But I do not cry, and feel no sadness, not yet. A quick peck on your forehead, and then I retreat. Back downstairs to put the kettle on.
- ends -