by Graham Tugwell
I’d be told that there was something gone wrong with my mouth or my hands again or that the light out there was far too hot for me or that it just wasn’t a good day after all and so I was to stay in, go down to the Cowboy or play with my train in the corner and not, I’d be told, not go anywhere near the windows.
Not when the light was on outside.
Not when the lights were on inside.
In the corner with my train, that’s where I was to be.
Round and round and round and round the train would go, and there would be no stops and no passengers because there would be no people.
What’s wrong with me today, Mammy? I’d ask, looking up past her knees at the glow of her cigarette.
And she’d look down at me and say—she’d say your neck’s gone crooked. Or wrists shouldn’t work like that. Or your hands are too silver. Or the skin is growing down your lips again.
And some days she’d look at me close and say your shadow is showing a different shape.
And I’d look behind to see my strangeness crawling up the walls.
Don’t scare them, she’d say, pushing me into the corner, pushing me down the stairs, you must never scare people.
They wouldn’t understand.
Or she’d just look up from the table and say softly: not today.
Tomorrow, she’d say. Maybe tomorrow.
And I’d watch the train go round and round and go nowhere at all.
Babies had no ideas in them and always left me hungry.
Old people had more but were so full of memories crackling and thin like the pages of the golden pages. Sometimes they would make me so sick it’d seem as if I’d never eaten at all.
And she’d have to go out into the other rooms again.
ASHBOURNE IND EST ASHBOURNE
She’d have to get me more of them.
But if it was someone who was the same size as me, I’d smell the ideas and the mind coming off them, even across the room, even before Mammy broke their heads open on the edge of the sink.
It would all come out— lovely minds, lovely ideas, lovely tastes.
And then I’d get fat and happy, for a short while at least, and by then she’d have stopped crying, stopped washing her hands over and over again.
Full now! I’d say and I’d do my best to smile for her.
Rubbing my belly and smiling for her.
In my basement when water flooded in from other rooms, some nights I’d wake to find my cot had been carried across the room to softly bump against the hips of the Cowboy painted on the wall there.
The Cowboy’d be smiling down at me from the dark, plaster face cracked in half, dust making his teeth black, hand in a fist with his thumb sticking up and I’d put my hands on the smoothness of his yellow shirt and lay my face against him and I’d smell the sour sweetness of his damp.
He understood. He smiled at me and he understood.
It’s okay, I’d think he’d tell me, It’s all okay.
He was never scared of the shape I’d be.
You’re wrong, she’d shout, you’re wrong, nothing but wrong, and the cord of the kettle would come whipping down again and though I’d try to curl into a ball, she’d always find the spots that hurt the most.
What did I ever do to deserve you?
I’d try to say I love you but she’d beat the words down with every stroke.
And I’d sit cross legged if legs allowed me, there in my corner, and I’d go through the golden pages again and again and again—all the names all in just one book.
I’d hold the weight of it, smell the soft and golden pages.
Such secret mysteries—other rooms with such strange names: BATTERSTOWN and KELLS and MONASTERY RD CLONDALKIN and CRÈCHE & MONTESSORI.
And sometimes I would check to see if my name was in there somewhere.
Check if I’d appeared on the list of rooms yet, if I was known, if I could find the name for this place I was in.
But I’d never see it written there in that maze of black on yellow.
Just the room called BEAUPARC.
Called PAROCHIAL HOUSE.
Called CHILDCARE – COUNTY CHILDCARE COMMITTEES.
She’d come down to me in my room and wake me, tell me jokes sometimes: What did the Mammy say to her baby?
I dunno, I’d say, with sleep in my eyes, What did the Mammy say to her baby?
And she’d say, We shouldn’t have been born.
And she’d laugh and laugh.
We shouldn’t have been born.
And I’d laugh Ha ha, Mammy, and she’d laugh Ha ha ha ha, and she’d hug me too, Ha ha ha, so tight every time I thought she’d break me into bits.
This is what I’d see from my corner: the brown carpet, the cream wallpaper, the wood panels along the breakfast counter, the chairs and table, the couch, the light stand , the door into the hallway and there the door to the room Mammy called Outside.
Every now and again I’d get a chance to look into the Outside.
It was a very big room, bigger than the kitchen and the basement combined. The carpet was a dark green with a grey stripe down the middle and in the distance, like a big skirting board, was a black stripe. Along the wall opposite was a painting, like the Cowboy, but not as nice, just white and brown boxes and triangles and things.
But there was special wallpaper above that called sky and that could be blue or white depending.
Outside was another room that I wasn’t supposed to go into, like her room or up in the attic where she put the people to lie down for a while when I was finished with them.
And so I didn’t ever go into the Outside, not even when she stopped waking up and not even when I’d get so hungry parts of me would come away.
And I’d sit in the corner and watch Outside through the hole in the boards that covered the windows.
And there was that thing like in the shower that she’d called the rain.
And there were things out there I had no words for, moving things and noisy things and once it sounded like the walls were splitting, that everything was coming down on top of me and someone kept flashing the lights on and off and even the Cowboy couldn’t calm me down.
And there were people.
Travelling through Outside, on their way to MILESTOWN DUNBOYNE, on their way to OVERNIGHT & SAME DAY DELIVERIES & COLLECTIONS.
There were strange people in that other room…
Sometimes she’d come down to me and sit with me for a while and tell me stories.
About the lanes where I was found and why there was nothing anyone could do for me and why she wasn’t to blame, she wasn’t to blame for any of it, how she had wanted a different wish.
But hadn’t the wish been made for her?
And I wanted, oh how I wanted to know what she was talking about.
What all those words in sequence meant.
And she’d smile, and she’d feel so much better and I’d feel so much worse when she left, blowing the candle out.
What’s wrong with me today, Mammy? I’d say and she’d breathe a curl of smelly smoke out over the carpet towards my corner and she’d look at me
Shoulders should be level, she’d say.
Your knees should bend the other way.
Your feet don’t match.
You shouldn’t ever look at me that way, she’d scream.
And I’d say to myself: Why?
Why do I keep getting everything wrong?
And the heads would lie opened on the draining board.
Eat it, she’d say to me, pointing with the dirty hammer, eat it—I’m not going out again, I’m not going out again—
I won’t keep doing this for you.
I won’t keep doing this.
I won’t. I won’t.
And some nights, some nights that were far apart and few between, for no reason, no reason that I could think of, she’d sing.
Sing for me, and sing for herself—
And she’d be beautiful then—
And the words, the beautiful words—
Come by the lanes and by the fields,
And walk no more the world alone,
And seek no more the heart of home,
Come by the lanes and take the gift of love so ever changing.
And listening, listening in the corner, feeling the warmth of it, I’d be happy. I’d be so happy.
As if all I had in that moment would be all that I would ever need.
GRAHAM TUGWELL is a PhD student with the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he teaches Popular and Modernist Fiction. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, his work has appeared in Kerouac’s Dog magazine. Visit his website at grahamtugwell.com.