Read the First Novel Award winner's first article for Geist: she endures a stressful family visit in a piece originally published in issue 48.
Bog Woman comes in her taxi to collect us off the Dublin train at Foxford railway station, my sister, my two-and-a-half-year-old son and me, to deliver us to Baolachmore, my mam's place, on the side of a mountain in the west of Ireland, because my mam can't find her driving licence. In truth, it is hard to find anything in my mam’s house, even my mam. Soon we’re bouncing up and down in the old van, climbing the road with Bog Woman at the helm, up and down, into and out of the potholes along the boreens that lead to Baolachmore. “Sure Foxford is gone dreadful,” she says. “Ya can get every kind of drug in it, coe cane, ecstasies, sure ya can get everything, there’s fellas getting rich of it, there’s fellas in there making millions."
Foxford is a very, very small town. The only significant building is the woollen mill, where my Granny and her sisters worked when they were young, at the height of its production. These days the focus of the town is the tour and interactive media program in the heritage centre. There visitors get to attend a re-enactment of a meeting at the courthouse in 1890, with life-size models, while a film projected on the wall behind them illustrates the life of the nun who came and founded the mill, saving the town from destitution. She must have been the only nun in the country who was not a grumpy cantankerous bat.
Rounding the last bend in the road, we catch sight of Mary Kathleen’s farm and there she is, standing at her gate. She has been standing there staring out into a field of cattle since before I was born. “See that woman there,” Bog Woman says of Mary Kathleen. “She’s failed awful.” Bog Woman doesn't say whether it was the coe caine or the ecstasies or just having to listen endlessly to the likes of Bog Woman herself that had gotten to Mary Kathleen and made her fail awful.
As we approach my granny’s house, where my mam grew up and now lives, Bog Woman tells us my mother is fierce busy with her animals. My mam appears, pushing her hair out of her eyes and clutching half a dozen eggs in the crook of her arm. “God bless ya and spare ya the health,” she says to Bog Woman, ignoring us and handing her over the eggs and the nine Euro fare.
The evening passes without any fatal arguments, as the first five hours of these visits always do. At dinnertime my son gets to feed the chickens. He has never seen a live chicken up close, as chickens are sparse in East Vancouver where we live. We go in and around the barn to meet the various creatures of my mam’s homestead. Goats, including a newborn, sheep, a donkey, three pigs, and her prized possession—a Kerry cow, pregnant. She meets and greets them individually with a different language for each variety, and as we move through them she tells stories of animals that have died and points out the ones that have given her nothing but trouble. The last time I was here, a prematurely born baby goat was living in the kitchen and only got himself evicted after a few weeks when she came home to find him up on top of the piano. Even then she took him a hot water bottle nightly. I ask my mother where she keeps the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig I bought her in 1997. “He’s dead,” she says. “Sure they don’t live long, those fellas.” Behind the house, turkeys, geese, ducks, fan-tailed pigeons and a single pheasant scatter about the place. She says the ducks are dirty, filthy creatures and she gives us the inventory that the fox has taken from her between his jaws this year.
The next day is swamped with politicians canvassing for the vote (it is general election week), a cow getting ready to calve, much discussion of whether the said cow will calve, treks to the barn to check for any sign of the cow calving, and me trying to put one foot down in front of the other inside the jungle that is my mam’s cottage. All the while hearing creaky groans of the past, smelling the disappointment and seeing the despair that has been the furniture of this family for generations and that now rest in every crevice of my mam’s cottage. The empty perfume bottle, the plastic white rabbit with the nodding head that I’m sure I put into the bin when I was nine, two copies of the Irish Independent commemorating John F. Kennedy’s death. There is a mighty hole in the wall between the kitchen and the living room, as large as a person and arched at the top, with exposed stone that gives a Fred Flintstone feel to the place. My mam explains she asked a fella to knock a hole in the wall, then he took off without finishing it and she hasn’t seen him since. More proof of how hard it is to get anything done around here, she says, and that people are a shower of blistering bastards.
Out in the fields my son gallops off and then suddenly disappears, bum up, into a heap of briars. The stone walls I clambered and slipped on as a child haven’t gone anywhere, and the smell of silage still turns my stomach. Thomas and Jamesie’s house has been done up since Jamesie died. I miss Jamesie standing there at the gate, clutching his portly belly, smiling a toothless grin, geese wandering past him. Everybody’s sheds remain the same.
In the evening things begin to deteriorate when I brag a bit to my sister that I’ve managed to teach my son some Irish. “I haven’t noticed it doing anything for your bank balance,” she responds, on account of her paying my son’s airfare to Dublin. I hold my tongue. Amidst the rubble and jumble of the kitchen I try to encourage my mam in her farming pursuits by pointing out all she has achieved around the place and praising her to the hilt. But shortly afterwards I accidentally piss her off by saying that the Jamaicans eat a lot of goat in curry. I mean it as a sort of marketing tip, but I am jet-lagged and lacking the vital enthusiasm. She takes great exception. I remind her that I am on her side. “It doesn’t feel like it,” she replies furiously. She is easily disappointed, my mam. She goes on grumbling that I don’t listen properly, which is probably true. “But do you know,” I finally tell her, “you never ask me a single thing about my life?” To her credit she does not ask anything.
But the next morning when my son gets dragged into the equation, my patience runs out. “Isn’t she a bit weird?” my sister remarks to him, referring to me. And when I ask him if he has had a bowel movement, my mother says, “Tell your mammy not to be so rude.” To me she says, flatly, “He’s far too young to be potty training.”
I give her an argument through clenched teeth.
“Some of us are eating,” she cuts back.
That does it. “For God’s sake,” I roar at her, “we are here for two fucking days. For once in your life, couldn’t you just be nice?”
A frozen moment follows. It’s as though a boulder has dropped through the roof. How many millions of scenes like this one have come and gone in families in the history of the world? Now I have lost the brain with my mother, what do I do? It is like trying to dive out of a swimming pool.
“Go into the living room,” my sister tells me. I grab my son and do so, but because of the mighty hole in the wall, we can still see each other and I can hear every word they say. My son says, “Calm down, Mammy,” and I try to explain to him that sometimes people fight and get angry, like that turtle got angry with a bear in a story we once read. In the kitchen, my sister has begun polishing the piano that the goat walked on, in spite of the fact that the piano is piled with stuff. I can hear the two of them discussing a woman called Patsy, who my mam says has gotten very thin.
Outside it is lashing rain. My mother doesn’t speak another word to me. It gives me small satisfaction to be perceived as the devil incarnate, and finally to have taken an opportunity to behave that way.
When it is time to leave, I can’t wait to get out of there. At the train platform my mother looks utterly wounded and neither of us attempts to speak to the other, which leaves my sister doing twice as many goodbyes. Then Bog Woman is back with the taxi and driving us from the train station to a bookshop to meet a bus that will take us to Ballyhaunis, because, she tells us, there is no train running from Foxford today. At the bookshop we sit in her rusty van for twenty-five minutes, waiting. A young fella walks by outside. “See him,” she says. “Sure the young people are all the same, they’re all down the hatch, down the hatch with the drink.” She points to another man and says he used to own a nightclub, but lost it because he was giving drink to teenagers.
“How did you end up in Foxford?” I ask her.
“Me husband’s from Foxford, an’ I married him.”
“And do you like him?”
“I do,” she says. “I have to tell you the truth, I couldn’t tell you a lie, not that we don’t have our ups and downs, but he was the best thing ever happened to me. I’m from Ballaghaderreen,” she continues, “but I wouldn’t want to be marrying into them.”
It dawns on Bog Woman that there has been no sign of the bus, so it must surely be gone. She decides to chase the train by belting to Ballyhaunis. When we get to Ballyhaunis, the train is as gone as it was twenty-five miles ago, but Bog Woman now mentions the potatoes that she put in the pot to boil before she left the house. Improvised arrangements are made on a mobile phone. We will meet my Auntie Bridie in Kiltimagh, twelve miles down the road, in front of a pub.
At the crossroads in Kiltimagh, Bog Woman waves her hand toward a blue building down the street and says that is the pub. A moment later she has dumped us and gone. Fled the scene like she was flogging a bullock. A sign on the front of the building says Leabharlann. “That looks suspiciously like the library,” I tell my sister.
We swear and curse the bloody Bog Woman for dropping us at the wrong bloody place. Eventually my Uncle Paddy retrieves us, driving on the wrong side of the road.
The next day back in Dublin I spend the day giving out loudly about my mam in several kitchens across various postal districts and drinking enough tea to drown myself. In my friend Aódhán’s kitchen in Dublin 6, I say, “The woman is unbelievable, it was hell from start to finish. Eventually I lost the brain and roared at her.” “Good,” he says.
At my friend Cathy’s house in Dublin 4, my son plays football with her avocados while she tells me, “It’s shitty, but it’s not your fault.” I tell her I’ll never stay in that house again.
That evening, in Mary McCarthy’s kitchen in Dublin 9, I swear profusely and say, “My family is a fucking nightmare. I wish I could trade your mother for my mother.” Mary stands on one leg frying chicken in a pan. Her other leg has a fat bandage wrapped round the ankle. “McCarthy, what the fuck happened to your leg?” I inquire. She looks at me. “Fucking weddings,” she says, “what can I say. I tripped.”
Here is a table full of people to swear and drink tea with, McCarthy standing on her one good leg cooking chicken, and my son as happy as a pig in muck, hoovering up expensive-looking Italian biscuits and fruit brack. Mary’s mam says Mary’s dad thinks my son is the best child that ever came into their house, and asks do I want a hot drop in my tea.
I get a vision of a ten-year-old girl visiting my mam’s kitchen thinking she is the greatest because she has a goat on top of her piano, while her own mother prefers to watch Coronation Street and make curtains. There is something awful attractive and peaceful about other people’s families—they’re like candles when you are having a power outage with your own.