The mother

Deirdre Sullivan

 

 

When Laoise was a little girl she hated men with beards, people in wheelchairs, old people loud people, visitors who smelled, disabled people, foreigners. Any sort of stranger made her scared. She didn’t cry: she pointed and she screamed. Her mother’s face would pale and she would scoop her up or try to shush her.

Her friends had all got married in the same year. The five of them from school, one after another. She had been a bridesmaid at two of the weddings, and done a reading at another. She had stuffed cards with money, walked the shopping streets for clothes and shoes and clutch bags.

Small talk at these things is always awkward, but big talk’s not much better, Laoise reckoned. People felt entitled to little bits of her. When Laoise was single, it was who she was seeing, was there anyone serious, and who she’d bring to weddings. She thought about giving up trying to pass the strange tests people set. Maybe buying a dog. Something golden, loving. A head to rub. A belly and soft eyes. The thing about a dog was that it loved you. That was just their nature. Humans wanted things. More things than love.

And then she met Jim. Are you moving in together? Do you think he will propose? Have you set a date?

Jim was a little older. They loved each other almost right away. The time was right, and love comes really quickly when you’re grateful. A warm back and a kind voice – he proposed and then it was her turn. She made him shave his beard for the big day. It was something special, in the end. Her father proudly walking down the aisle. Jim neckless in his suit, but still, so charming. The sanctuary of that. I’m there now, Laoise thought. Where people are. I’m there.

And then it was babies. Have ye thought about it? Are ye trying? Mammy wanted grandkids, Dad dropped hints as well. You next. You next. You next. Jim didn’t mind. He said he wasn’t the type to let other people dictate the way he lived his life.

We married in a church and I wore white, Laoise thought. You put a gold ring on my fourth left finger. That isn’t you. It is the weight of them. And also love.

One by one, her friends filled up their happily married wombs with little babies. Laoise bought so many tiny outfits, signed so many cards. And meanwhile they tried, Laoise and Jim, but still the blood kept coming every month. It had always horrified her a little, the bleeding. It seemed so animal, like something that should not have to be borne. She had an iPad and an Orla Kiely bag with matching wallet. She shouldn’t have to drip and hurt and stain. That’s not what life should be. Not once you’re married.

After a while they stopped officially trying, but she could see it written on his face when they made love: Look how casual this is. How spontaneous. We’re not trying but maybe it will happen. Just for us. It made it hard to enjoy physical intimacy. She felt a bit like a toaster on the blink. He put the bread in, but no toast popped out. The element stayed cold and iron grey.

She began to resent him, with his shoulders and his golf clubs and his voice. When her friends met up they all had kids and she just had a womb that didn’t work. Or maybe it did work, but not with Jim.

They hadn’t been to the doctor. It was that thing of wanting kids, but not so much that you’d look for help from other people. It felt like something they should be able to do all by themselves, together. And they had time. Not lots of it, but some.

Jim said, If you adopted, you’d wait for years and not be sure exactly whose it was, or what could go wrong, genetically. Laoise thought of men with beards, of children who were cleverer than her, or very stupid. Who failed in ways they weren’t supposed to fail. She felt the welling anger-fear from childhood. The urge to point her finger, raise her voice.

She took up Pilates, clean eating. Lost a stone and a half. After a while she stopped getting a period. Jim wanted more sex, but her body was probably less able for it. The gym made her happy. There was a satisfaction in the work that had been done, and motivation for future sacrifices.

She never said no to Jim. She touched his body and made the sounds he liked. She imagined shrinking into the sheets some times, flattening into a paper doll and lying there, not having to do anything, please anyone. When she did that, and if she focused on it fully, there was a little joy that came along.

She never really thought about Jim’s happiness. He ate his toast. He drank his tea. He told her about things. She listened. He went to matches, sometimes to the golf club. They booked weekends away and little holidays. She walked fifteen thousand steps every single day and sometimes he came walking with her. He made her laugh surprisingly every now and then, in a way that other people couldn’t. She’d roll her eyes and talk about him to her friends, or to people in the office, in the usual aren’t-men-incompetent sort of way. Half of being married was being fondly, publicly annoyed.

Their friends had a second round of babies. Laoise and Jim were godparents to one or two. Could take them to the zoo, or babysit. Hand them back, all full of love and chips. It didn’t make them sad, though Laoise could see how it could have done. If they were other people.

 

One day, Laoise arrived home from work, hung up her trenchcoat in the hall, went into the kitchen, took her travel cup out of her Mulberry bag and went to rinse it. Jim was in the kitchen, perusing something intently: a catalogue? Jim liked catalogues. IKEA, Argos, Trailfinders. He’d pick them up and take them home. Choose what he would buy, where they could go. And then not buy anything, go anywhere.

‘What’s that?’ she asked, scrubbing at the brown scum on the travel cup. You had to work at it, or there’d be staining, ghosts of teabags past. Some people let it build up, then used Milton. But the thought of drinking from something dirty bothered Laoise. She placed the bright white cup on the rack to dry, ready for the morning. Over her shoulder, she could see the awkwardness of Jim. Half slouched over, half turning towards her.

‘Oh. Nothing.’ He muttered, ‘It’s a bit mad.’ His face was shifty, but his hands moved slowly, wanting her to look.

‘Well, I’m a bit mad.’ Laoise smiled, taking carrots out of the salad drawer and beginning to peel them. ‘So you might as well tell me.’

‘It’s just this clinic.’ Jim was wearing a polo shirt and jeans, sipping a flat white he’d bought from the new place down the road. He’d worked from home today. They had a coffee maker, but he liked the excuse to go for a little jaunt. He took a fifteen-minute break, and a twenty-five-minute one. He set a timer for them.

He held up the catalogue. There was a baby sloth on the cover, offering a hibiscus blossom to the photographer with a wet look of tenderness.

‘Ahhh look,’ Laoise said, putting down the peeler. ‘Wait, is that the lads …’

‘Yeah,’ said Jim, ‘from the radio.’

They’d heard about it driving home from work one day, in different cars but listening to the same station. It was catching on. There were clients who were really happy. She’d see them in the parks, with small raccoons, red pandas. The odd bear. You wouldn’t really see the ones with mice or guinea pigs. For smaller ones you didn’t need a leash, harness or buggy.

When they passed they sometimes met your eye and smiled. Like, ‘Fucking judge me. I am happy.’

Laoise wasn’t sure how she should feel. It wasn’t normal. She knew that. But it made the world a bit more magical, like seeing a celebrity, or someone from the news but in real life. A slow loris with eyes as wide as saucers. A lemur peering out from a pink fleece. Small soft things were pretty. Hard to judge. And, they wouldn’t care about it if you did judge them, would they? Their brains weren’t built that way. Could be a good thing.

‘We haven’t seen a sloth yet,’ she said to Jim.

‘No.’

His voice was low. ‘I’d like to …’

Laoise cut across him, her voice was high. A little too upbeat. ‘We could take Ciarán to the zoo again. I mean, if you wanted to look at sloths. I know it’s not the same thing, not exactly.’ She wanted to finish speaking, but her mouth was full of words. It wouldn’t stop. ‘It’s been a while since we went somewhere like that. A day out. We wouldn’t even have to take him – Ciarán.’

‘No,’ Jim said. His eyes met hers.

‘I mean’ – and there was something threaded through his voice, an odd sort of energy – ‘I mean I’d like to think about … like: this. I ordered it. The catalogue. Online. They don’t include the full range or a price list on the website. Like wedding suppliers.’ He rolled his eyes to heaven, with a smile. Jim liked remembering the day they’d had. The work that they had done to make it happen. Laoise rolled hers back. She liked that too.

‘Oh,’ she said, and paused and took a breath. ‘Let’s have a look then.’

There was no harm in having a look. Listening to someone’s opinion. Exploring your options. It was fine. Absolutely normal. To listen to your husband. Give him time. This was how you made a marriage work. Supporting each other. The carrots weren’t cut yet, only peeled. But it was fine. This clearly mattered to him more than dinner.

‘I’ve often thought’, Jim said, ‘that a child is kind of … long-term.’

That had occurred to Laoise too. Seeing her friends so tired, bags growing under eyes and staying put.

‘And we both love animals,’ he said.

‘But you can buy an animal,’ Laoise pointed out. ‘In a pet shop. Or from a breeder. Or rescue.’ The calmness of her voice surprised her. She thought she should be more confused, upset. It should feel stranger than it did.

‘It wouldn’t be ours, though,’ Jim said. ‘This way it would be. And they say it’s very safe. Almost safer than the normal way.’

‘Really?’ Laoise asked, flashing into labour, flesh and strain.

‘Well, depending on what you go for, they can be much smaller than a baby. And we’d obviously be going private, so there’s that higher level of care involved …’

Jim had thought this through, it seemed.

But, essentially, Laoise thought, in bed at night, as his breathing slowed and deepened, it would be me. In a room. Giving birth to an animal. A freak show. She closed her eyes and planed her fingers across the flatter layers of stomach, the fruit of all her work.

Herself and Jim had watched all of Planet Earth together several years ago. She hadn’t noticed him getting broody then. Nature was cruel and devastating. Things were beautiful and complex and then got eaten.

She rolled towards Jim and took in his warmth. Breathed the smell of sweat and dust and sweet chilli crisps. Jim always snacked, he munched through everything when he was working. It was endearing, his lack of discipline. Laoise mentally listed all the things she had forbidden herself: milk, cream, cheese, butter, bread, pasta, chocolate, juices of all sorts, fancy crackers that looked healthy but were secretly one hundred calories a pop and then why would you? Anything more than a glass of wine when they were out – she’d sip it to be normal.

Laoise walked twenty thousand steps a day that week. Rang her friends and asked them for their problems, to distract her. She didn’t mention hers, they didn’t ask. The catalogue was there upon the table. She’d leaf through it. Looking at the pages he’d dog-eared. Big golden yokes, mainly. Jim liked dogs, so did Laoise. They loved you back.

She’d always thought that they were boring dogs, the ones Jim liked: Labradors, Retrievers. Loyal, companionable. Nothing wrong with that, but Laoise craved a little bit of work. A wizened Peke, a snappy Pomeranian. Something that would not be friends with everyone. Just hers.

They sat and talked about it, in the evenings.

‘Loyalty is important,’ Jim said.

‘I agree.’ But Laoise didn’t just want slavish loyalty. She wanted to earn it with love.

‘I’d like it to be clever,’ Jim said too.

‘Not too clever, though. When we’re at work all day, it would go mad.’

‘We wouldn’t leave it in the house alone, though,’ Jim said. ‘It wouldn’t be a pet. We’d have to care a little more than that.’

  Fair enough, Laoise thought. We can sacrifice a holiday a year for expensive doggy day care.

‘What about a cocker spaniel?’

‘They like a rural setting,’ Jim said.

‘Next door have one.’

‘Yeah, a pet. But it probably isn’t perfectly happy.’

Her voice was soft towards him. They were so close, she felt the heat of skin against her mouth.

‘I’d like our dog to be perfectly happy,’ he said.

  Our dog. It sounded nice. That night, when they had sex, it felt like love. Like two of them together in the bed, sharing a thing. She traced her fingers across his chest hair after, coming down. She stroked and stroked. It wasn’t very soft.

That Friday, a man and a woman and their panda, Daisy, were on the Late Late Show. They watched it after dinner, sipping wine.

‘We were thinking about having children, but humans aren’t an endangered species …’ the man began.

The woman started ranting about the planet, but the host directed her back to the strange thing she’d let inside her womb.

  Fair play to him, thought Laoise. Knows to give the people what they want.

The couple’s message seemed to be, ‘Don’t judge us, but we are better than you and have got a certificate from a zoo to prove it.’

It was a lovely piece of paper, had that old tea-stained sheen, and they’d gotten it framed in black and white. Dublin Zoo was building a special enclosure for Daisy.

‘Parenting a different species requires a level of empathy that’s not for everyone,’ the man said, and the woman held his hand and nodded enthusiastically.

‘They’re not, like, pets. That’s what people do not understand.’

The host adjusted his skinny tie and leaned in, in a calculatedly disarming manner. ‘Anne-Marie, though … you were reluctant at first, am I right?’

‘I was, Ryan. I was. When you think of giving birth to something, you wonder about the risks. The responsibility. It’s hard to be a mother in the world.’

‘It’s true. We don’t appreciate mothers enough. Let’s take a moment to clap for all the mammies out there.’

The audience applauded.

‘And, Paul pointed out, the two of us – we don’t really like people, and the world doesn’t need more of them. And then there’s this. We get to have the experience. And it’s demanding. It is. But not as long-term.’

‘And safe?’

‘Oh, very safe.’ Anne-Marie’s eyes bulged as she said this. Paul patted her knee. She was wearing a black-and-white sheath dress. Very on-trend.

The subject changed, another guest emerged.

Laoise looked at Jim. He looked at her.

‘I don’t want a bear,’ she said. ‘Any sort of bear. I mean, imagine.’

Jim rolled his eyes. ‘I know. The notions.’

‘Notions!’

They laughed together, and while they were getting ready for bed, toothbrush sticking out between his lips, he said to her: ‘You choose the breed. I don’t care. You know the ones I like, but whatever happens, I’ll love it and you.’

And Laoise smiled. The next day, she made the appointment.

They went in for the pre-counselling – three sessions.

They signed the forms.

The night before the procedure, Laoise whispered to Jim, ‘Do you want to know, or do you want it to be a surprise?’

He grinned. ‘Surprise.’

Then, the following morning, he said, ‘I’ve reconsidered: tell me, tell me.’

‘Are you sure?’

He smiled at her. His face looked very fat, collar buttoned right up to the top. ‘I’ve never been more sure of anything.’

‘I decided to go with a …’ Laoise made a drumroll on the table. ‘Lurcher.’

Jim welled up. ‘For …’

‘… your granddad,’ Laoise finished. She was feeling quite emotional, looking at Jim’s face. She hadn’t seen him cry in years. It was nice. She’d always liked Jim’s granddad, a grizzled, druidical man who would have made a very handsome dog.

‘Hopefully it won’t be a racist lurcher,’ Jim joked.

‘Arrah, stop. He was of his time.’

His fingers brushed the top of her belly. Laoise smiled at him.

‘That’s perfect, love,’ he told her. ‘You are perfect.’

He kissed her like it was their wedding day. With sweet relief.

Laoise closed her eyes, and held her head snuggled against his chest. The feelings in them were so deep already. It would be a lot of pressure to put on a child. A puppy would be more equipped to bear that weight. It didn’t occur to her that after it was finished, her body would disgust him. That he would love the dog but hate the wife. That welcoming this spark would snuff out something. Other people’s eyes would make him cold.

 

All in all, though, she did not regret it.

There are things that teach you who you are.

 

 

 

 

 

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