I was in London that summer when my father let slip the news of my mother’s condition to my relatives. My aunt Sadie was the only one with a phone, MACaulay 3286.
‘I don’t understand it Jerry. This is going on for years and there’s no improvement. Are the doctors over there any good?’
‘There is nothing to be done.’
‘Nothing to be done.’
There was silence at both ends.
‘Is it true Jerry?’
At that time in the late sixties I had a grandmother and four aunts living on the same street in Clapham Common. They were gathered together in the small first floor dining room, some seated, some unable to keep still, most smoking, going in and out of the adjacent kitchen to get cups of tea or light their cigarettes from the cooker’s pilot light. Tears and words intermingled. Nothing to be done. They shifted positions, got up, sat down, but it was always the same – nothing to be done.
I had just turned 17 and my summer job was the RACS bakery in Brixton, just a short bus ride from my aunt’s house. I was a general helper, mostly working on the two-man slice pan machine. One of us loaded unsliced loaves of bread on to a conveyor belt, while the other took them off at the other end – after they had been automatically sliced and wrapped in wax paper – and stacked them onto a trolley. The trolley was emptied and filled on both sides and I got great pleasure in twirling it around on its castors each time a side was filled. A similar routine was used to wash the returned bread trays from the delivery vans. The conveyor belt took the trays into an industrial washing machine, which spewed them out on the other side. Again we used the castor-wheeled trolleys to load and unload. This was also a two-man operation and my co-worker was a Nigerian who came to and from work in a tailored mohair suit and a briefcase for his overalls and sandwiches.
Almost every day at an unpredictable hour a small squat Turkish worker with waves of brylcreamed hair combed straight back like my father’s, would wander through the floor, calling out ‘Push Mesa’ and making a sexual gesture with his hand and fist, eliciting comments from the other workers.
‘Do you know what that means?’ one asked me and they all laughed.
Several of the workers at the bakery were patois-speaking West Indians who conversed loudly in the canteen over noisy games of dominos. For the first few days on the job I was convinced they were speaking a foreign language until my ear became attuned and I realised it was English, with liberal doses of ‘Blood cloths’ and ‘Raz cloths’ shouted out as domino pieces were rapped on the hard formica table top.
I also got to hang around with my cousin Pat and his skinhead friends with their Doc Martins, half-mast bleached denims, wide braces and striped Ben Sherman shirts with neat pleats down the back. It was a uniform that I did not don, although I did like the Ben Shermans.
After that phone call everything changed in my aunt’s house but you wouldn’t have been any wiser if you had asked me. I missed out on the change of timbre in their voices and didn’t get the meaning of the rapid rushes to the bathroom, where tears were surely shed. And then the strange questions. What were they asking that for? Adults were embarrassing sometimes. I gave an answer that must have increased their agony, as it must have been clear to them that I had no inkling of what was around the corner. A sister of my father’s, who also lived in London, visited and nearly let the cat out of the bag, or probably did, but it might as well have been an elephant as far as I was concerned.
I travelled home with my aunts a few weeks later. My uncle Charlie drove us to Euston, where the lively West Indian porters made good humoured remarks to my aunts. We got the train to Holyhead and from there the boat to Dun Laoghaire. Another train brought us into Dublin and from there we made our way down to Limerick Junction where we were collected by my father, who somehow managed to pack everyone – and everything – into the car.
My mother came to the front door, hesitant and with a weak pale smile. We went into the little-used sitting room, where they spoke softly. Later one of my aunts asked:
‘How did you think your mother looked?’
‘She looks the same, but she seems to have got smaller.’
There was an exoticism about these women, elegant in their tight-fitting fashionable dresses, their coiffured hair and their perfume. More than a decade earlier they had emigrated, more or less en masse, with no prospect of jobs at home.
My aunts and their children, whom we played with in the summer, expanded our horizons when they came home on holiday. Theirs was a different world and in the days before television we could hardly imagine the meaning of an admonishment like ‘no telly for you Pat when we get home if you don’t behave.’
‘You never play with us when your English cousins come,’ a friend of my sister’s complained when they had gone back.
Whenever my aunts were together in the kitchen they talked in whispers if we were around. They knew what was coming – we didn’t. I sensed something alright but then again older adults were sometimes strange, talking about people and things in a way you didn’t understand. I could feel them watching me, knowing now that they would have done anything to prevent what was coming ever reaching me. They must have sensed their own mortality too, caught up as they were in one of life’s unwelcome turns.
It started as soon as my mother had given birth to my youngest brother, just a few days after my thirteenth birthday. Immediately after the birth she was transferred from the nursing home to the Regional Hospital in Limerick, where she underwent an operation for colon cancer. When she came home a few weeks later, she moved slowly and talked quietly. Her eyes seemed bigger and deeper, some internal strain mirrored there and signs that something had weakened, a vulnerability breaking through. She couldn’t eat any cabbage – there may have been other restrictions – but other than that there was nothing to suggest the calamity which was to come. In the beginning we might have been watchful and wary but life soon resumed its usual flow; at least for us children. We weren’t particularly sensitive to illness and soon started to carry on as before in our boisterous fashion.
After that first operation a neighbour called and admonished us not to let our mother go through anything like that again without having it seen to. It was positive and seemed to suggest that my mother would recover her health.
I had finished primary school that summer and just a few months later I went away to boarding school at St. Clement’s in Limerick city. It was run by the Redemptorists and to all intents and purposes was a pre-seminary, with pupils, at least a good portion of them, expected to go on for the priesthood. Being away from home for long periods must have distanced me from my mother’s condition as I have no strong recollections of the sickness around that time. It may have been that the sickness was in abeyance, because it was after the second operation some two odd years after the first one that her condition deteriorated significantly. By that time I was no longer at St. Clement’s but boarding with the Salesians in Pallaskenry, having persuaded my parents that I would do better under a more liberal regime. Whatever vocation I had was well and truly snuffed out during my year with the Redemptorists, or the Reds, as we called them.
I have a memory of a short internal scene while I was at the school Mass one day. I was imagining that my mother was dead and this bestowed some kind of a celebrity status on me – ‘there he goes, his mother just died you know.’ Something had given me an insight into the seriousness of the sickness. Maybe it was the day my parents visited me. She stayed in the car while my father collected me. When we came around the corner I saw her sitting there in the passenger seat, pale and weak looking.
I didn’t last at Pallaskenry either, as my Inter Cert results were not good enough to keep the scholarship and, in any case I was again pleading with my parents for another change, this time to be allowed to go to the local day school. All sorts of enmities and cliques had developed over the two years at Pallaskenry – it was more liberal establishment than the Reds but colder and less compassionate somehow – and frankly I was sick of boarding. I had not severed ties with my friends at home and there were genuine advantages in being free of my current confinement, not least girls. I got my wish and spent my final two years of secondary school at the local CBS.
These two years coincided with my mother’s final decline. She had to have a second operation and suffered agony after that, her screams embarrassing me as I stood outside the house one evening talking to my friends. I didn’t pay it any heed but what we were going through was taking its toll. When I went to London six months after her death, I was just 18 but people who met me there assumed I was a lot older. The unreflecting blast of youth was gone – revived briefly in drinking sessions – and a hardness, along with pessimism, crept in, unbidden, unnoticed, concealed underneath the surface but orchestrating my experiences and judgements. There was a book I read around that time and its title described it well – ‘All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye.’
A month or so before she died a bunch of us were at a dance in Cappamore – one of the benefits of now being in day school. There was a bit of a high jinks atmosphere in the air. I was with local friends from my village and we banged into a few of my CBS classmates after the dance in the local hall. It was all giddying about, everyone trying to impress and throwing in funny comments. Pat Hayes, one of the classmates, started talking to me on the margins of the group and out of the blue he asked me:
‘Does your mother have cancer?’
‘No. ulcers, she has ulcers,’ I corrected him.
I had never spoken about my mother’s health with my friends before – maybe Pat had a few pints in and got the courage to ask me. He didn’t say anything else and later in life when I reflected on it, I remember all kinds of people gently hinting at what was coming.
When I was talking to one of my aunt’s the next day I asked her:
‘Does Mammy have cancer?’ She stopped in her tracks and turned away.
‘What makes you think that?’
‘One of my friends asked me last night.’
‘Silly. What would he know?’ She said, colouring slightly and made some excuse to leave the room.
I was meeting girls around then and when my mother heard that I was going out with someone she didn’t approve of, she created an almighty fuss and I suffered several beatings from my father, partially acting under the strain of protecting his sick wife. One Sunday evening I came down, all decked out for the dance at the Oyster, the local dancehall, to be told I wasn’t allowed to go. I couldn’t believe it and stood there in shock, refusing to accept this gross injustice. When I recovered I said I needed to go to the toilet. I was still in my outer wear and I locked the door behind me and somehow squeezed myself out through the upper half of the small bathroom window. I went along the side passage beside the house and climbed out over the gate, bending low as I went past the front window and made my way down through the village and then across the fields on the left of the churchyard, heading to my widowed grand aunt’s farm, a place where my friends and I went regularly to smoke cigarettes and play cards. I was gone five minutes at the most when I saw my father’s car speeding along the road, ready to cut me off. I changed direction and made a long circular detour back along the slopes of the hill on the other side of the village. From there I made my way down to the road again about a half mile further on from the village and walked along nonchalantly, knowing I would be able to hail down the dance bus, which was due along in the next few minutes.
When I got to the dance hall I went in by the rear entrance but then made a fatal mistake, asking for a pass out to the bar which was located in a building across the road. After a few pints I made my way back into the dance hall where my father was waiting at the main entrance with the proprietor. I still had my dander up, probably artificially bolstered by the two pints of lager, and I tried to bluster my way in but the proprietor refused me entrance. Getting bolshier, I pointed out that I had already paid, embarrassing my father, who must have called on whatever reserves he had left to hold back from thumping me, but I would pay for it later at home with an extra beating for my brazenness. The proprietor came back with my entrance money and my father put me in the middle of the Austin Cambridge single front seat with my younger brother outside me in case I tried to get out the passenger door. When we pulled up at the house my mother was already waiting at the front door, visibly in a rage and she pulled me from the car by the hair.
I made another escape a few days later, heading to my aunt’s after school instead of home. That lasted a few days before my father turned up with the Garda sergeant, who bluntly explained the law to my aunt and I was back in harness again but the heat had gone out of everything and my relationship with the girl also broke up shortly afterwards.
Near the end my mother was back in the Regional where I visited her on Saturdays, thumbing into town and spending an hour or so by her bedside. In my memory the days are bright and sunny, the time of year when you think the summer might never end. Did I visit of my own volition or was I asked to go in? The nurses, who came in regularly, pleased her by saying what a fine son she had. During one of my last visits she started to retch and I caught a glimpse of her thigh, white like enamel, as she hurriedly pushed back the covers to reach the sink on the wall.
At the beginning of the week she died we were playing some game on the road in front of our house, that in itself a sign that the normal order had broken down, as we were instructed to stay behind the double gates in the backyard and not go on the street, not that traffic was much of a danger back then; it was more a fear of the street’s influence on our partly-sheltered upbringing. I can’t remember what we were playing – football maybe, or handball off McCormack’s high wall opposite our house – but I do remember my attention being drawn in the direction of the post office, down past the crossroads at the other end of the village, where I could see Mrs O’Dwyer, the short-sighted postmistress, with her head thrown back, talking to the parish priest, their eyes trained firmly on us.
My father came in through the front door; I can’t remember who opened it for him. Normally, family members came through one of the back doors, which were on the latch and only visitors and strangers came in the front. It was late on Saturday evening and we were strewn on the settee and chairs, watching Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In – ‘veeery iiintereesting but vot are they talking about?’ His face was empty, completely drained. The television suddenly seemed very loud as crass canned laughter filled the room and he turned it off with a weak gesture of annoyance and disgust. We immediately felt awkward and guilty and at that moment we all knew what had happened without him having to open his mouth.
In her last years she rarely went out. I remember being sick in bed one day and her leaning out the top half of my bedroom window, watching some activity on the street. The trouble was starting in the north, bombs about to go off, but we had our own bomb and it smashed us to pieces and scattered us to the four winds.
My father and I were in Limerick early the following day. The news had already spread – an elderly couple came by on the street and shook his hand as he averted his head slightly to one side. We were in to get haircuts and new clothes. I had awoken that morning to a mantra of ‘my mother is dead’ repeating in my head. It was like I was doing it to make it real but I didn’t succeed.
For the funeral itself we would have a day of perfect late October sunshine. It was a slow two mile uphill journey to the cemetery from the church in Nicker, some of us walking behind the hearse and others following in cars. Most of the other mourners drove around by the lower road and were already congregated at the village and outside the graveyard when we got there. The hearse stopped at the crossroads below our house for the obligatory minute and then continued the short journey to the old graveyard, or the churchyard, as it is known locally. By the time we reached it there were thick clusters of people pressed together along the adjacent ditches and more starting to crowd in around us. Without warning I was overtaken by an unstoppable surge of emotion welling up inside me. I couldn’t hold back anymore and my tears flowed freely, my reserve totally breached. My shoulders shook and I sobbed loudly with little or no concern about appearances in front of the swelling crowd.
Earlier in the church, Fr. Keogh apologised for having to read out the Dues during the funeral mass. John C. ten shillings, Jack D two pounds – it went on for ever and the irony was that Fr. Keogh – a hurling fanatic – could say Mass in fifteen minutes if there was a big match on in Thurles.
We had gathered together the evening before in the mortuary at the side of the Regional for the removal service. My mother’s physical form was preserved but her forehead was cold and hard as stone when I kissed her goodbye. My eldest brother, with a look of defiance, raised my four year old brother high in the air to see my mother’s face before they closed the coffin, but the child took the opportunity to look instead at the milling people gathered around.
All of us, young and old, were also caught up in the excitement that surrounded this great family tragedy. We were whisked around in cars; I got to have a few drinks with my Grandmother’s husband, and there was a constant stream of visitors. On the day after the funeral, when everything was all over, my younger sister declared,
‘I want to get a drive in Uncle Joe’s car today.
I was in London again the following summer – this time with my friend Noel – and when the Leaving results came in by way of a letter from my father, I decided there and then not to come back and got atrociously drunk that same evening, finishing up in the gutter somewhere near Elephant & Castle, having missed our last connecting train back to Clapham North. Noel was trying to assure a young policeman that I was okay as I smiled stupidly up at him.
Later, after Noel had gone back and on to university, my father wrote again, trying to persuade me to come home and resit the exam. He didn’t push it but laid out his reasoning in a well-meant way. By this time I was reading Krishnamurti and had developed a self-serving shield against failure – perhaps failure was the shield? I turned him down, but in truth, failing the Leaving cut very deep and added another scar to an earlier one. It wasn’t Krishnamurti or whatever half thought out philosophy of mine I was indulging in at the time, it was simply too late – the gates had shut behind me. Years of drift followed and I became unmoored from the path which seemed to have been laid out for me.
Dermot lives in Dublin, Ireland and writes both fiction (short and long), as well as non-fiction memoir pieces. One of his short stories was the winner of the Bryan MacMahon 2017 short story prize and another was shortlisted for the New Irish Writing award.
©Featured Image Credit: The Author