A Haiku for my Mother

My hands kneading dough                               

become your hands in cloudy              

puffs of wheaten flour.

Donnacha

Four Aprils old

His heart knows

Only joy

Proud and brave

He stands up straight

In uniform

My girl intent

Upon his lunchbox

Putting in

Taking out

Balancing . . .

Her eyelids not quite dry

I look at her

She looks at him

He waves at me

We spin in a ring of love

And recognise the day

Of separation

Comings and Goings – twenty years ago!

Being, like Woody Allen, too hostile to drive, I left my son to the airport bus. He was twenty, the first child to cross the sea in any direction, and he was going to America for a year to work in a holiday camp for children. To the Catskill mountains he was going, near New York. I stood on the road until I couldn’t see the bus any more and then I went into town as though it was any old Saturday. At three o’clock, when I knew he’d be taking off, I sat down; I had discovered a new pain in a new place.

Later, I went into his room and looked at the empty bed. I changed the sheets and tidied and cleaned. And then I washed all his clothes and hung them out and took them in and aired and ironed them, and folded them, oh so neat.

Long days later he phoned. He wanted tea-bags, nothing else, just tea-bags, and would I send them? He was having a great time, he said, meeting people from all over the world and he loved the heat and the craic was great but he wanted tea-bags. He said the night he arrived he stood at a balcony window and looked out at New York and he couldn’t stop smiling to himself because he was really there. And the picture of his there, leaning out with hands on the railings and him smiling is still in my head like a lost photograph.

So I got the tea-bags and packed them up and sent them and waited to hear they had arrived. His siblings said it was great; they never had to answer the phone when he was away because I’d have broken bones trying to get there first.

The parcel arrived. He’d be happy now, I thought, and I pictured him in the camp, up in the Catskill mountains with a crowd of children all different colours like in a holy picture, and them all sitting round in a circle drinking tea.

One day in town I looked at a mannequin in a window, and whatever way the head of it was turned or the way I looked at it I got such a sharp, terrible pain. My feet didn’t know where they were and I put a hand to the wall to steady myself.

The months passed and the day came for his return. oh, such cleanings and washings – I had everybody working, and at last, at last, the car arrived and out he got – a stranger, older, tanned, dressed in shorts and sandals – in a place where even on the hottest of hot days the boys sweltered in jeans and runners. He looked like a visitor and for a short while seemed like one.

That was years ago and they have all left and returned many times. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I’m not.

Broadcast on Radio Ulster 2006.

An Excerpt from – WE ALL DIE IN THE END

ANDY

There was sleet falling. It fell straight down in the windless, chill air but the boys ignored it. They were standing outside the pub hoping someone would lend them money or bring them out a few beers. Barney Madden ran them out of it but they went back when he took himself home. Like he owned the place, Stevie said, fuck him, all he does is wash the glasses.

            Andy felt the unhappiness grow in his chest again. It was heavy and he fought against it. No, he said to himself. No. He held his arms up and out in front of him and made soft, crooning, engine noises.

            “Definitely getting a bike, so I am, and it won’t be long now. I’m still getting a couple of days on the boat with Dominic Byrne and he says he’ll have more work in the Summer and I’ll start saving then . . . “

            Andy dropped his arms and sat on the wall.

            “What do you say, Stevie Wonder?”

            Stevie threw the butt of his cigarette on the ground and watched it roll into a puddle.

            “I say you’re full of shite, Andy. I wish there was more than tobacco in that fag, that’s what I say . . . God, it’s freezing.”

            They walked up and down, their fingers squeezed into the pockets of their jeans and their shoulders hunched and they thought about riding bikes on the straight, endless roads with the sun hot in the sky and their ipods loud in their ears.

            “We’re never going to have them bikes,” Stevie said.

            He nudged the rolled-up poster tucked under Andy’s arm.

            “That’s as near a bike as we’ll ever get . . .  cost a fuckin’ fortune even if you do have a job – most of them don’t hardly pay more than the dole. And you’ve got Lily and wee Grace. Have we any fags left?”

            Andy lit a cigarette and dragged on it before passing it to Stevie. Stevie had a part-time job delivering newspapers to shops. Great, he said it was, getting up at three in the morning, the streets all dark and no traffic so you could hear the sea, and then the day to yourself. He wanted Andy to come too when the other helper was off, but Lily wouldn’t let him – said she’d be scared on her own at night, even though them birds were in the downstairs flat. She hated them birds; they were always laughing and talking so loud in the hall. Andy couldn’t imagine their lives – he looked at them like they were on television.

            The sleet began to fall thicker and faster. There was no one they knew coming or going and Andy could feel the cold going into his bones.

            “I’m off home,” he said. “It’s too fuckin’ cold to wait. See you later on, Stevie.”

            He pulled the sleeves of his jacket down over his knuckles and curled himself around the poster. One of his runners was letting in and he tried to bend his foot away from the wet spot. He went up the shore road at a half-run and paused as usual to spit into the sea; it was only a habit now; he never waited to see how far it went.

            He stood outside the flat for a minute staring up at the window, trying to guess if Lily and the baby were in or not. He opened the front door and listened. There wasn’t a sound, and then he heard a noise in the downstairs flat and the door swung open. Shite, Andy thought.

            “Hi,” he said, moving towards the stairs, mopping at the wet hair on his forehead.

            The girls stopped at the sight of him. Their faces were bright and their blonde curls bounced on their woolly scarves.

            “Hello! Hi! There’s nobody up there.”

            “We’ll make coffee for you if you like.”

            “We’ll warm you up. You look like a wee icicle.”

            Andy bolted for the stairs.

            “No thanks,” he said. “They’ll be home soon . . . I’ll have to . . . “

            He sniggered quietly to himself at the thought of what Lily might do if she came home and he was in there with them birds . . . they might have cooked him something and they’d have the heating on, probably had a big telly as well. Andy sighed, a long, painful sigh. He went into the kitchen and edged past the table to the kettle, batting the onions out of his way. They were strung from hooks in the ceiling. Lily had seen that once in a movie and insisted on stringing them up although she didn’t eat onions – didn’t cook anyway.

            Water rattled into the kettle and Andy shivered with his hand on the cold tap. Maybe Lily would bring home something from the Chinese – she did that sometimes if her mother gave her some money.            

A poem for “My Girl”

The music filled the room

We pushed the table back

Stacked the chairs and

Formed a ring to watch

My daughter dance

Spangled eyes alight

With joy of movement

She whirled, birled

Arms and legs abandoned

And while she whirled she changed

Grew, evolved, emerged

A stranger unconnected

All her own self, on her own

Future firing headlong

Detached from my detaining hands

The beat drummed louder

Finished and the stranger sank

Triumphant, flushed and

Laughing, enjoying our applause

Turned to me for confirmation

My girl again

But never quite the same.

Time Out

Small windows, deep-set

In a whitewashed wall

Cobbled, dung-splashed

Yard, fiery red-topped

Roosters

Pecked unwary legs

Crusty, griddled bread

Thick with yellow butter

Our towny tongues unsure

Of still-warm milk

Cool, beaten earthen floor

Rough on shoe-soft feet

At night the whisper

Wheeze of bellows

Turf smoke burning eyes

Murmured prayers before

The lamps, blood-red and

Phosphorescent blue

My mother’s mother nodded

Black-robed in the corner

Her father sang us songs

Threaded laces in his boots

And shooed us, lit by candles

To the quilted, feather bed.

The Small Dark Man – a poem

A rattle of keys at the back door

We waited – wary

His face shut tight against us

Like a fist

Toed-in, he crouched over furtive whiskeys

Fingers curled

Over chin and cigarette

And we ghosted from the room

With nervous grins

But once he showed me Dickens

And Maurice Walsh

And he was The Small Dark Man

Alone in a house of women

Cut off by his country voice

From the town

Squeezing memories

From an old melodeon

Sometimes – surprised

His face would lift with love

And fall again

Now I surprise myself

Toed-in, crouched over flagrant whiskeys

Fingers curled over chin and cigarette

And I have to leave the room.

From “Siblings”

The kitchen was too warm, and it was quiet except for Sarah’s occasional tobacco cough and the rustling of thin white pages. Sarah read quickly, stopping sometimes to laugh silently, her shoulders shaking. A bluebottle buzzed in the heat and flew to the pile of dirt in the corner. Tea-leaves, eggshells, bits of porridge – Sarah no longer noticed them, no more than she noticed the thick oily grime on the shelves and window-sills, or the matted clumps of dust on the floor. Her thin hand stretched from the sticky sleeve of a black cardigan as she read and her skirt, once a pale grey, was patterned with dribbles of tea and porridge.

            The sudden, small noise in the hall made her look up. She waited, listening for her brother’s key, frowning, her eyes searching the floor and the walls and then she rose from the chair. Barney’s pipe lay on the mantle-piece; she stuffed it with tobacco and lit it with the long matches he always used, and after puffing and coughing she opened the door and peered out into the hall.

            The postcard was bright against the dark linoleum. It looked new and neat and strange beside the pile of old newspapers. Sarah’s breathing filled the hall as she smoked faster. She bent awkwardly and picked it up, a picture of mountains and a lake. Her fingers trembled over the address. It was addressed to them all. To Barney and Martin and herself.

            Sarah kept her eye on the door, listening for Barney but the only sound was the bluebottle buzzing in the corner. She sighed deeply, looked to the door, and then read the card but the words made no sense to her. She read them out in a loud whisper.

            “Hello my dear cousins. Just a quick word to say I’ll be back from overseas in a few days and I`d like to call and see you all on the 20th – I`ll be bringing my new wife!! I`ll keep all the news until I see you. Love and hugs, Richard.”

            “Bringing new wife . . . Richard,” Sarah read again. “Oh, what does it mean?”

            And then the front door opened and closed and Sarah subsided into her chair. Barney came in rubbing his hands together, bringing with him a taste of salty air and a whiff of beer and whiskey from the pub.

            “Well then, Sarah,” he said. “Is the porridge ready? What a morning we had, a crowd from the city, you should have seen them, down for some party or other. I never saw people so nice about themselves, looking at the chairs before they sat down, looking at the tables. What do they expect in a public house – polish and perfume? I don’t know what the city pubs must be like. And Charlie hounding me to dry the glasses and bring up crates of beer, more beer every ten minutes.”

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