She was small for a monster, with the slightly hurt look that monsters have and babies share, the same need to understand. The gravity of that look, pulling everything into her, was enough to make you hum and walk around the room. She saw everything, ate it with her eyes, she made women’s breasts ache and men rattle their keys. Naked, she brought tears to your eyes. You felt this baby was all skin, holding the soft little parcel of her insides: her fresh little kidneys, the squiggle of her guts, her quail’s bones. You could eat her, that’s all, her bladder like a sweet little onion and her softly sprouting brain. You could bend down and kiss her on the tummy: she was all so neatly packed, like the gift she was. So perfect, they said, you could almost take her home with you.
And they handed her on from arm to arm, with the dip that people make when they give away a baby—letting her body go and guiding her head, as though it might not be attached. Nothing worse than being left holding the baby, they seemed to say, except being left with the baby’s head.
“Wind,” they said, patted her back and laid her on the sofa. Her father sat in a chair by her side. This is what I have to show, he seemed to say, while his hands hung limp. No wonder they moved in a pack: the kitchen soon stuffed with aunts, uncles silent in the hall, looking for a football to tip, or a rug with an uneven pile.
In fact her father was thinking of the ceiling, when he leaned his head back, and of the wallpaper, when he faced the wall. When he looked at the baby, he thought of the baby; and when he looked at the fireplace, he thought about coal.
He thought, once, about how he had made her—the map on the sheet when he was done. She was another country, that was all. She was something else again. She was a bad joke, but you laughed all the same. So he did laugh, and they took it as a sign.
“Goodbye now, Berts.” And, when they were gone, he picked the baby up and walked around the room.
Why do men have nipples? and what would happen if he dropped her on the floor? What would happen if he cracked her on the mantelpiece, or swung her by an arm against the wall? All her little sacs would burst and leak. He could feel the soft snap of her bones.
Berts looked out of the window at the street, the bundle pushing and straining in his arms. He tried to think, but his eyes got stuck in the net curtains like a film of tears in front of the glass. The curtains were white. He loved her by choice. He made the choice to love her. That was important. That was all. She turned her face to his chest and sucked his heart until it bruised.
It was hard to say how Berts’ wife had used her day in the new house they had bought; moving from room to room, crossing from carpet to lino, pausing on the wooden saddle across the door. The nights he knew about, but something about daylight made her uncertain. It was winter. It was hard for him to imagine her there.
“What do you do all day?” he said.
“This and that.”
She spent a lot of the time in the bath, she said, and Berts suddenly knew she was pregnant. He remembered the night he looked at his map on the sheet and saw a whole country congealing in the cold, the way she lay there in the dark, thinking. The way, in the days to follow, she had pushed the furniture back so the chairs rubbed their necks against the wall.
So that is what you do, he thought—and we did it. The whole world around him seemed to bulge and push. But when he looked at his wife he thought, perhaps, that she herself did not yet know.
She was quiet. She cooked the wrong things. She lay down and pressed her cheek to the floor, her eye skimming the carpet all the way to the skirting board. At first he thought it was the baby making her mad but, as she bloomed, she shrank and the brightness in her eye became too hard. The real signs were those to do with size. She put the cup into the milk, you could say, and not the other way around, she put the bag into the clothes and not the clothes into the bag, she poured water on the floor and squeezed it back into the bucket.
Most of the time it did not matter. Women have their own rules. Why not turn the world inside out—bake a chicken in stuffing, wrap a sheet around the washing machine? They went to his in-laws for the Christmas and she treated her own mother like a child. He took this as a good sign, a tender sign, but her father would not let her into the milking parlour after she tried to feed their own milk to the cows and, after that, manure. Or she spilt milk on grass, or she wanted to swim in the rain. Back home, she switched on the shower when she was in the bath, lit candles in the daytime, ate steak and bit her hand. She pulled him to her every night, as though to make children where there was already a child, as though to unmake the child and let it swim away.
“Like killing a dead thing,” she said once when he was done, and he thought he had murdered it. “Making a pregnant woman pregnant.” It was the first time she had mentioned the baby and he was very moved.
There was a kind of pleasure to it that he had not seen in her before, never mind the crockery in the hot press, the cutlery in bed. The house filled up with unread books, and she sang to the radio as she cleaned. Something seemed to lift as she moved with the melody and he thought that music might mend her, once and for all. But now—when the world was the right way out again, when she stopped drinking out of the hot tap and could pass a mirror without turning it to the wall—now she was happy, or unhappy, or both, without cause. The sound of distant bells made her tongue swell, she said. The sound of a tap dripping smelt of roses.
All the time he watched her middle, wondering what would come out of her, because one day she would be sane again, though who, in their right minds, would be able to describe the child?
They sat in the kitchen eating their tea and they talked about storage space.
“Jam at the back,” she said. “Salt on the top shelf. That’s what’s important.”
The dinner was all wrong. It was the wrong day for fish and the ketchup was in the sugar bowl. He found himself shouting at her while she stroked the pattern of little triangles on the table top and ran her thumb along its metal rim. She tried to tell him what it was that frightened her—it was a word, she said, but she couldn’t remember which one.
That night Berts pushed into her blindly, delicately. It was a kind of mental probing, and what he found there frightened him. His wife said nothing, but all sorts of “words” came into his head.
They sat in the doctor’s waiting room and watched a blonde child ripping up the magazines. His wife stared at the ribbons on the little girl’s collar, the dog-shaped brooch pinned to her dress, the snot running down to her mouth, and her tiny, fat, violent hands. She leaned forward and Berts wondered should he intervene. It occurred to him that, apart from Mass, he had not seen his wife outside the house since they were married. And here she was, stretching out her hand, searching for a word.
“Dotey,” she said, at last. “Hello, Dotey.” And he thought how strange women are. How love conquers them.
The doctor nodded to him, as he sent her off alone into the consulting room.
The secret places of your wife, said the nod.
The secret places of my wife, said his. Dr Meagher would make the child inside her feel ashamed of itself, just at the touch of his hand. Still, when Berts got the call from the receptionist, he was afraid to turn the knob on the door.
“Well?” he said.
Whatever was wrong, Meagher didn’t seem bothered by it, by the fun fair of his wife, with all her different rides. He prescribed rest—because rest was the thing, he said, and pills are not for the pregnant. Her system, he said, would settle down. It was a question of hormones—a little wild perhaps, in the head, but the healthiest thing for a body, in the long run. A sort of spring clean.
She was upset, Berts could see that. She was worse when she was upset. He lifted his wife’s coat and tried to put her into it, but she kept circling it, until they both began to spin around. Then she stopped. She caught the coat and pulled the sleeves inside out so that the lining showed.
“Now,” she said. And slipped her arms through.
Meagher watched as they turned to leave. He watched her pause at the window and then, with an effort, move to the door. She turned to him and said, “Hello.”
Meagher lifted his pen. He set it back down again.
“Just one more thing,” he said.
Berts always told himself he would do the same again, if he had to, because he couldn’t bear the thought that they had not been free. And what made you more free than the ability to die, if needs be? The baby would live and that is what babies are for. She would die, because people do. It was the timing that made him feel giddy.
Other people had their secret. He hardly knew what it was—a place with no proper map and no way home. Perhaps he did mention it. He was sure he mentioned it. He was sure he said the word to her and that she looked at him like it was the one word she could not, would not recognise.
“England?” as if he had just said “Aubergine.”
She was the cleverest woman he had ever kissed. Berts looked at his wife, who could not tell a contradiction any more; everything for her was all confused and all the same. Jam at the back, salt on the top shelf—those were the decisions she made, all the rest was candles in daylight, and swimming in the rain. All the rest was growth.
At the end of the fifth month they took her in and Berts found that he missed her around the house. The carpets seemed emptied of pattern, the cushions made no sense. It was a week before he could bring himself to wash a dish and when he did, it was with surgical precision, putting on the rubber gloves, lifting each plate out of the water like a newborn thing. There was a smell in the house and he started to clean from one corner to the next, leaving nothing out. When he reached the bedroom he stopped, looked over the threshold, and closed the door. From that day, he went for his dinner from one sister to another and slept on the sofa downstairs, dreaming of upholstered breasts, waking with his head hanging over the edge and his face to the floor.
On the day they said she died he went into the bedroom again. He stripped off the sheets and smelt along the mattress. He lay down on the floor and, with the length of his arm, swept her shoes from under the bed. He tested the heater and sniffed the sockets. Then he opened the wardrobe door. There was a paper bag on the shelf where she kept her vests and her vests were gone. He wondered where they were, as he looked at the mess of turnips inside the bag, slimy and stinking—did people take vests, when you were giving away clothes? He lifted the bag off the shelf and slid the door shut. That wardrobe had meant so much in the early days of their marriage, fitted and white. She had probably cooked the vests. In any case the smell was gone now, as he carried the bag downstairs and out the back door.
The baby didn’t seem to mind. The baby was the thing. She fed earnestly and slept like the dead. She filled her nappy with a look of bereaved surprise, but otherwise she cried or was delighted—by him, by the tassels on the lampshade, by the flex of the kettle, by the way water poured and then was gone. But mostly, it has to be said, she was delighted with herself.
The first words she spoke were “Ma Ma.” It was enough to break your heart, said the aunts, but Berts understood.
“Maria,” he said. “Maria.” What could be more monstrous than her birth? Only this: that the first word to bubble in her throat was her own name—twice.
The sisters were terrific, but it wore Berts down to hear the hidden banging of brothers-in-law when he knocked at their doors. Still, she had a gaggle of mothers and it seemed to suit her; each day a different house to be carried through, a different floor to crawl on: Teresa’s blue Tintawn, Lucy’s lozenges of red on a grey ground, with little black curves, Joan’s brown lino in Inchicore, with a hole sprouting hessian by the cooker. Thursday was all russet leaves that you could never pick up, scattered across Mrs Hanratty’s floor, but Friday was the best day of all. His sister Bernie had no children. She had Axminster flowers spreading pink and green and grey and the baby moved from one to the next, sitting on their open petals like a careful frog.
They were all fine women in their way but they were worn out, that was the thing of it, and Lucy was foolish and Mrs Hanratty was being too kind. Besides, he spent all his time in the old car he had to buy to ferry her around. A vindictive Lancia, as bad as his wife. The electrics were not the best. Press the indicator switch and the wipers came on, the whole lot fused in the rain.
He knew, as he stood at the side of the road with his head under the bonnet, that he would have to marry again. The thought overwhelmed him. He still did not understand. There wasn’t a part of his wife that had wanted to die. There wasn’t a single cell of her that had wanted to die. You would think, they said, that she would let go, turn her face to the wall. But she did not. She looked at them and looked at them and looked and looked.
Berts kept to his own side of the bed at night with the baby in a cot across the room. I need to go away, he thought, imagining a journey where he travelled the coast all the way round and back to the house again. It would be important, he thought, to keep to the very rim of the land, his journey shorter when the tide came in, the sea hungering for him, then slipping away, over and over, from Wicklow Head to Valencia to Malin Head. The trip was so fresh and real in his mind it exhausted him. Night after night he scrambled over rocks and took paths along cliffs and down to the sand, seaweed cracking and slipping under the sole of his shoe. He took an imaginary piece of red wool and wove it around an imaginary map, curling into coves and wriggling around headlands, then stretching it out along a ruler for miles per inch. It was amazingly long. He worried about piers. Should he travel the length of them, going up the near side and coming back by the far?
He would start from his house and walk to Dublin Bay, then set his face north or south. The choice was important. There was a difference between walking with the sea on your right-hand side and the sea on your left. He switched until he became dizzy and decided on the left—because his wife had slept on that side, because death was on the left.
Left meant south. He would travel from Bray to Wexford then, a straight flat coast. A right turn for Cork; he would twist his way around the headlands of Kerry, then loop his way around Loop Head, after he had jumped the River Shannon.
When does the coast become a river bank? At the change of water, from fresh to sea salt. It was a shining line of salt, then, that he was tracing around the country, he saw it glittering and lacy in his mind. He would walk up one bank of the river, cross at the first bridge and walk back along the other bank, while yesterday’s path pulled away from him on the far side. Then the headlands of Galway and Mayo, which made you hungry just to look at them. Donegal would be the worst of it and, after Donegal, the North proper, where he would slip past policemen with guns and keep his mouth shut. Round the curly head of Ireland, down to the docks of Belfast and the sweep of the Mournes, after which it was a quick slither south and home.
He saw himself standing again on the spot he had started from, looking at the Pigeon House and Dublin Bay before turning inland. The house would be the same when he got back, but it would be better the second time around, or at least different. His wife would be dead, but he would be alive, with a circle inscribed around that life. She would leave him alone.
But perhaps it didn’t stop at Dublin Bay. Shouldn’t he walk back on the other side of the street, so the circle would close at his own front door? Or would it close inside the house? Should he wind his way around the walls until he got to the exact place he started out from—this bed, and his side of this bed? Would he cross, last of all, the space left by his wife?
Or would he cross it first, as he set out? But, as he rolled over the hollow she had left in the mattress, he might catch the edge of her absence like an elastic band on his foot, he might drag it with him around the entire country, until his wife’s death had filled the map, emptied the map.
There was no doubt about it, he would have to start from his own side. He would have to cross her last, or even not cross her at all, but, by skirting the bed at the end of his trip, leave her outside the circle, on the side of the sea. But would that mean he would have to head north instead of south when he reached the coast? End up walking widdershins around the country, like some sort of eejit?
Night after night, he set out in his mind, from one side of the bed or the other, edging around the inside walls of the house, with the room to his right or the room to his left. But he got mixed up going from the bedroom to the bathroom, or he crossed the line coming down the stairs. Out in the streets, he clung to one side of the road and it led him, around corners and up alleys, all the way to Phibsboro. He took his courage and crossed at traffic lights. Then he stood on the far side of the road turning this way and that, sick and dizzy, until, back in his bed, he started to cry.
Years later, he realised how simple it was. He should have put his faith in the constancy of the left-hand side. Left would always be left. She was on the left, the sea would be on the left, that was all.
It was a relief to bring a woman into the house after the year was passed, though it was still hard to say when Berts’ wife had actually died. The sisters turned out on a Tuesday morning to a cold church scattered with old women and muttered their way through the memorial Mass. The baby cried and smiled. It was done.
Evelyn was a nice girl. Berts knew she would grow to hate him and he welcomed it as his due, but she surprised him with love and he thought again how strange women are. He had Maria to look after so there were no dances, or trips to the cinema—just a baby to pull at her, the grime in the sink and the yearning in his pants. He bought a record player and a record and they waltzed in the front room while Maria watched them from the sofa, her mouth set like Churchill’s at the Yalta conference. Berts’ hand sweated into the arch of Evelyn’s back until the artificial silk of her blouse grew limp and started to cling. Their talk stopped and the record stopped but still they circled around, while on the sofa Maria began to think and then to shit, her eyes intent, mournful, forgetful of the room. And as their turning slowed to a sway and the carpet seemed too thick to let their feet take another shuffle Maria started to fill her nappy, her face fixed on some distant, unknowable thing. By the time Berts leaned in to kiss Evelyn, Maria’s bottom was in the air like the green velour was pushing it out of her, and the kiss that they had waited for, tasting of sweat and lipstick, the surprising coolness of Evelyn’s tongue and the bitterness of Berts’ Sweet Afton, was not finished until Maria swung her backside over the edge of the sofa and let it fall, splat, on to the floor.
“Who would have thought,” said Evelyn, “that so much could come out of them,” as she hung the towelling down by the side of the toilet bowl, and flushed.
Evelyn was neat, and soft about the eyes, but her mouth was too wet and her smile settled pouches of fat around her chin. She would not age well. Berts watched as she speared the new nappy with a safety pin, so firm you could hear the crunch of the cotton threads. The chain around her neck hung down over Maria’s watchful eyes.
But the child fixed on her. She amazed Evelyn with her hunger, took her first steps towards her. She tried out sounds, like small moves into the future, and one of them was “Ebbelyn.” That settled it. On the night they came back from the honeymoon Berts picked the child up from Bernie’s, brought her back home and put her in her new room. The noise of her crying made his lovemaking so fierce that his new wife said, “You’ve put me into next week,” and she stood naked before him before going downstairs to heat the milk.
They were a family.
Berts could not sort through the different kinds of pain he felt: perhaps it was the grief that comes to the man who wins. When Maria looked at him he turned his pockets inside out and, “Look,” he said. “All gone.” But he knew it was a lie. He began to shore up small losses that would count against him. He slurped his tea like an animal and turned his back in the bed but Evelyn did not seem to mind. Perhaps she wasn’t very bright. All day long she played with the child, infatuated, kind. One day he saw her go to unbutton her blouse.
That was it, then. He made love to her every night and kept a secret chart, he wore his underwear loose and took cool baths. This child understood too much, had always understood too much. He did not like to see her touch his wife.
But Evelyn was so happy pregnant, he thought he had won again and the same need to spoil it came over him. She was mad for paintshops, colour swatches, books full of wallpaper and he indulged her for a while, teasing her along. He picked his moment, though. When it came to carpets, he stalled.
“They’re not three years old,” he said, making her fight for it.
“I want my own carpet,” she said, finally, as he knew she would say, now that she had her own child.
And Berts said, “My wife chose this carpet. You know that. My dead wife.”
Maria watched them. She was sitting on the carpet in question, which was brown in patches and beige in others with black spidery bits scattered here and there. She sat with her backside spread firmly over the floor, her hand poised on its way to her mouth, a stray button between finger and thumb, while they said things that could not be unsaid about her dead mother and her living father and the child he had conceived to supplant her. And when Evelyn was crying and Berts had walked away she put the button into her mouth and swallowed it.
“Would you murder me as quick?” cried Evelyn from the kitchen.
It was then that Berts told her about his wife on the bed, the child filling her stomach and the tumour filling her brain. How they wheeled her down to the operating theatre, her pelvis surging and her face blank. How they took out the child and turned off the machines, and waited. And later, when he touched her corpse, as he was obliged to do, he felt the size and carelessness of the stitches under the cloth and he knew that she had bled to death, and that it had taken her all day.
What kind of child comes out of a dead woman? A child with no brain? A child with two heads? Or no child at all? Just the smell of one maybe, or its wriggling, in the shape of a box. Evelyn looked at Maria, sitting on the carpet, all flesh and smiles and spit. She was small for a monster. She was not enough.
“She was born innocent,” said Evelyn. “Like the rest of us.”
But Berts was looking at her now with a silence so hard she could feel it tighten around the back of her neck.
After that they said no more about it, but changed the wallpaper and left the carpets and decided to love each other if they could.