Noelle McCarthy returns home in this prize-winning personal essay
“Get in ‘til you see what we got you. This is my daughter.” Mammy is loud, showing off for the driver. The cab smells of drink and Estee Lauder. Wherever they’ve been, they’ve been there all morning. Angela is jammed in the back, the big cardboard box on her knees shaking violently.
“You’ll have to mind him, give him curly green cabbage.” Mammy taps the side of the box. It lifts a few centimetres up into the air, sides bulging. Angela throws herself forward over it, Medusa curls flying, the ash from her fag goes all over the seat in front of her. I reach for the seat belt. It’s way too long for me.
“Up past the crucifixion please.” Mammy sounds haughty. His knuckles are white on the steering wheel. They’d have kept him outside The Chimes a good half hour. There’s loud scrabbling from the back, the witchy sound of long nails scraping. The statues blur past: dying Christ, his weeping mother.
“Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Come on, girl!” Mammy blesses herself theatrically, insists I do the same. The driver thumps his chest three times with a vengeance.
The worst is not when she keeps them waiting, the worst is when she won’t pay them. A guy the other night pulled into the Guards Station. She got out with the glass still in her hand: vodka and lime. Dwarves, Angela calls them. We pretended to be asleep when the Guard came out, me and my brother in our school uniforms. Something cold pressed up against my leg, the bag with the crispy pancakes. They put her back in the car eventually. The Guard must have told the driver to bring us home. Daddy gave him some money and flung the crispy pancakes all over the hall on top of her.
Passing the asylum, the box flies open. A savage kick, a flash of fur, lush and thrilling. Angela tries to jam the flap back down.
“For fuck’s sake, hold onto him!” Mammy is high, triumphant. Children’s allowance day, maybe. Not The Chimes, The Raven. Up to Sullivan’s afterwards, the clock running down on them, buoyed by dwarves, unusually monied. Past the soft green glow of the fish tanks, up the back to the long rows of biscuit-smelling cages lined with sawdust. Fluffy piles of fawn, grey, tortoiseshell. Five pounds for a guinea pig, rabbits for a tenner. Three brothers own it, or four. Country people, they all look identical. The mice are only eighty-five pence, but I’m not allowed them anymore, after the last time. I am deeply excited about whatever is in the box, even though it’s Angela holding it. Her son catches pigeons when we’re outside The Chimes, just throws his jacket over them. I don’t know what happens to them afterwards. She’s trying to keep the box steady. Whatever’s inside is trying to tunnel through the bottom.
Mammy makes the driver wait for his money, counting out coppers. Her bag is all over the back seat, Silvermints and tissues, Granda’s mass card; she refuses to gather it up in any kind of hurry. She wants to provoke him, there’s a perceived lack of deference in all of these encounters that infuriates her. Many years later I am back in Ireland. In a cab late one night, the driver points at the house.
“The one who lives in there, she’s a fucking bitch, I’ll tell you. A fucking demon.” It’s the same man, a bit greyer, still weaselly. I get out three houses down and keep the five Euro I was going to tip him.
She doesn’t have a key but the side gate is open. Released from its box, the rabbit is enormous. Grey and mangy with massive hind legs, it quivers all over.
“A buck” says Mammy approvingly. Crazed from the journey, it runs straight at the garden wall and finds a too-small hole to jam itself into. When I try to pull it out, it makes a thin wailing noise like a baby. “Don’t go into her boy, she’d fucking eat you.”Catherine next door. Mammy says she is a whore, that her children are possessed by the devil. The middle boy called her an alkie once when she took his ball off him. She puts Daddy’s big metal toolbox under the window ledge and stands up on it.
Angela stays by the washing line, smoking. Her black clip-on earrings have streams of crystals that reach down to her shoulders. Her eyes are panda’ed with kohl. She narrows them at me through the cigarette smoke.“You’d want to mind that rabbit your mother got you.” I turn my back on her. I was very young when I realised they’d get kicked out of places if I started roaring. Angela would glare as I flung my crisps on the floor. “She knows exactly what she’s doing.”
Eventually the barman would say no as soon as he saw the buggy. I am the least compliant of my siblings. They used to sit my sister on a high stool and she’d polish the darts trophies.
“Christ’s sake, help me Angela, I don’t want to knock the Busy Lizzie.” My mother is pushing against the glass like a cat, her fingers working the catch on the window. Last time, she cut her hand open. Blood all over her good blue dress, must have been a wedding they were at, or a christening. Angela braces her leg and she pulls herself up and into the kitchen. The rabbit is trying to dig its way under the fuchsia by the back wall, white cotton tail in the air, hind legs pumping furiously. There’s room in the hutch after the guinea pigs got eaten but I’ll have to catch it. I imagine Daddy coming in from work, Angela sitting in the kitchen, the bottle with the blue label on the table in front of them. The next time I see the rabbit, he’s on the main road, we left the side gate open. Mammy breaks ice cubes out of their tray.
“He’ll come back, he’s only exploring.”
It’s my first time. The ceiling feels lower than it should be. There’s a row of coffee tables running down the centre of the room, spindly legged, peeling wood-coloured laminate. On them are clear plastic jars of biscuits, chocolate-chip, the cheap ones, and a big pile of dark blue hardback books in the middle. Two rows of chairs along opposite walls, old-fashioned recliners upholstered in grimy florals. The books are handed round. I have real problems; it’s going to take more than fucking book club- but the familiar weight of a book in my hand is reassuring. At the top of the room, sitting at a table under a large ugly painting of cart horses, is a man who looks like John the Baptist. He picks up a laminated sheet “Welcome everyone to Wednesday night Young Ones Meeting”
His voice is high and nasal, weirdly at odds with his burning eyes and spiritual cheekbones. The name of the meeting is confusing-I’m clearly the only one here under forty, but everyone goes ahead and stands up with him, we say a short prayer in awkward, arrhythmic unison.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”
My chair is an old recliner; when we sit back down, my feet fly out to nearly eye level. I won’t be able to get up again unless someone pulls me. My shoes are yellow, I’ve been wearing them all winter. Beat up leather high heels, $20 from the Paperbag Princess. They go with everything, my lilac tights, the tartan coat I’m wearing. I wish I hadn’t worn it. It’s too loud, the check is blaring. And the round brass buttons. I look like Sergeant Pepper, with my ass on the floor and my legs in the air. My face is red, I can feel it. I’m ashamed of myself. In general, not for any special reason, although I could take my pick if I had to choose.
There’s a homeless man asleep in the chair opposite me, furry dreadlocks wrapped around his neck, lap full of chocolate chip cookies. I know him from the strip I think, from sitting outside SPQR with Christopher and Elliott. Home with $10 bottles, rolling in through Elliott’s bedroom window, we lost the front door key months ago. Not long after that, I took a taxi driver home with me. I made him take me to the Countdown in Grey Lynn for a box of Corona first and then brought him in to watch Shortland Street. I had a week of episodes taped on the Sky box. He went out and took the sign off the cab at 3am when I said he could stay over. He said his wife was dead, maybe? In Bulgaria. He was very hairy. Elliott thought it was hilarious. I’ve been dreaming about planes falling out of the sky lately. I asked the therapist about it. “Sounds self-explanatory,” she said, not giving me much to work with.
She has coarse skin and a wide flat nose. Nice brown eyes. She writes me out receipts in an old-fashioned invoice book like I’m going to file them away carefully. After we finish every Wednesday, I walk down the narrow stairs in my yellow heels and I go into her dank little toilet and put on more lipstick. Lady Danger.
I’m rereading Dracula. Over and over, late at night, early morning, lying on my bed, smoking out the window in my yellow dress with the blue daisies and wine stains on it, the same maudlin Cat Power song playing over and over. Jonathan Harker uses a diary to try to keep his mind in order. I write things down, but I can’t read my handwriting the next morning. There’s a scrap in my make-up bag in shouting capitals NO ONE IS GOING TO RESCUE YOU. No-one rescued Jonathan Harker. He came down that wall himself, hanging on by his fingernails, nearly lost his mind doing it. I walked over the bridge by the motorway in my yellow shoes, into an AA meeting. It looked like a club I wanted nothing to do with. But they do not go out alone, Mina and Van Helsing, Arthur, Quincy, Dr Seward and Jonathan Harker. The Crew of Light. They band together, bare their shameful secrets (those sexy vampire ladies in the castle, Jonathan!) It is only by helping and receiving help in return from one another that they are able to defeat the monster. The thing that wants to eat them up, destroy them. John the Baptist is on my team now. And the sleeping dreads guy, if he wants to be. And the woman sitting opposite, with the hiking boots, who brought her own muesli.
The archaeologist meets me off the train. He’s younger than I thought but his hair is prematurely receding. We drive through the town, vague shapes loom in the rain. He is friendly and chatty, used to questions now the site’s achieved notoriety. I still feel guilty. He doesn’t ask what kind of article it’s going to be. I’m relieved, I haven’t thought of anything. We pull up at an overgrown boreen- I’d never have found this place- walk along a path and then step off it into the long grass of the field. My city shoes are soaked through in seconds. It isn’t much to look at- sodden, green, dotted with cow pats and tiny hillocks. This ground holds hundreds, if not thousands of dead people, two of whom interest me especially.
“They were here.”He walks me over to a low tangle of brambles. “One was on his back, facing the sky, the other had his head turned – the stone in his mouth had been jammed in so hard, his jaw was dislocated.” Deviant burials is the technical term. I’d been careful in my email not to mention vampires.
“Both of them were bound hand and foot. We don’t know if they went in the ground at the same time. One was a lot older than the other.” No, it wasn’t possible to see the skeletons at the university. I have a feeling he’s used to answering that one. I walk where he leads, look where he points obediently, playing at being an interested reporter. The field is open to the river on one side, “a sort of medieval motorway”, it would have been used to ferry goods and people from the south and a connection to the bigger waterway of the Shannon. It is a strategic place to put a church- anyone standing here would have a clear view of horsemen streaming down the hills that surround us. This was O’Connor country, part of their stronghold in Connaught a long time before the churches. The big rock a few yards away from the deviants was possibly a place where leaders were invested, crowned, whatever they did with them. Maybe a place where they made sacrifices too, he says, further back. I don’t ask who ‘they’ were. His answer would be archaeologically accurate; I prefer figments of my imagination.
He takes me to the top corner of the field. Under dripping whitethorns, I feel a raised outline beneath my wet feet; the foundations of the church from the 13th century. It would have served the township, it’s mentioned in various annals. I take photos of grass, pretending they’re necessary. I feel like such an absolute fraud getting this tour, he came all the way to the train to get me. In that corner over there- he points- we found many infant skeletons. It wouldn’t have been unusual for the ones who died unbaptised to be buried together. After they were dug up, the farmer who owns this field arranged a blessing. I have a sudden flashback- my aunt taking me out to the coast one night, after she moved back to Kerry. We stood on a stone wall and she pointed at a rocky patch in front of the shoreline. That was where they put the newborns she said, the ones in purgatory. That sort of graveyard has a special name in Irish she said, but her Gaelic accent was terrible, and I forget it.
We walk along the perimeter of the church, me trying to ask intelligent questions and not step on any babies. How many different churches on the site, from how many different centuries? Did they date the bodies? How many were there? Well, it’s certainly a lot busier than we thought initially, he laughs, waving his hand over for, all I know, thousands of skeletons. Occasionally he says things that bring me out in goose pimples. One of the ones with the rock in his mouth was very tall, abnormally so, for that time in history. The O’ Connor connection. Connor. Conn-er. I’d thought I was so clever calling him that. My trickster. I don’t know why I don’t just say I’m researching a novel- it’s a thing people do, it’s perfectly legitimate. I don’t think he’d be out here for that, I don’t think he’d think it the best use of his time, providing me with a backstory for a vampire. But what a perfect spot for the birth of a revenant. A dreeping field in an obscure corner of Connaught, an open grave next to a big black rock overlooking a sullen brown river.
On the train home, I turn the river silver. I tint the edges of the rock blood red in the setting sun. They push him against it, hands and feet bound, chest open to meet the spear. I write it all out long-hand, half-eaten twix and a green paper cup of tea on the table in front of me. The seats smell of wet hair, the windows are steaming. “I went to the place where they killed you.” It’s my heroine talking. Hanna, named for my grandmother who carried gin in her handbag and looks like a bag of bones with eyes in photographs. She used to let me stay up all night and gave me lemonade and Maltesers. Poor Hanna, obsessed with the vampire who maimed her. I went all the way up to a wet field in Roscommon to find the start of a story and then lost the nerve to finish it. Stones in mouths beneath the ground, babies under the dirt alongside them. Mammy’s second one nearly killed her. He’s down in Blackrock somewhere, a pauper’s grave she called it. The day we went for my communion shoes she told me about him and his sister, her other, not-us children. I sat opposite her in The Left Bank bar, a glass of red lemonade and the shoe box on the table in front of me. The shoes were Clarks, cut-out flower designs in the toes, a little golden key in the heel of the left one.
“We’ll think of them now, girl”, raising her glass of Carling.
“All that pauper’s grave shit was completely unnecessary.” My aunt in Jury’s years later, drunk, sounding very American. “I’d have paid for a grave, no big deal, I was working. But it was always the same with her. She did it her own way. Terrible thing, I’m not saying it wasn’t. But eighteen months later wasn’t she married and had you?”
On the train we drink tea from green cardboard cups and eat muesli bars. I do anyway, I’m breastfeeding. When we rang my mother from the hospital, her scream was high and thin, like someone had left the world, instead of coming into it.
“Is she OK? Is she OK?”
I laughed and laughed, wasted on fentanyl.“Of course she is. She’s perfect.”
Filling out the departure cards, there was a big fat toad of fear in my belly. I held her the whole way to Dubai, terrified she’d scream the plane down. But she just slept and fed; tiny fingernails scrabbling on my chest, the steady insistent pull on the nipple. 17 hours later, I was like one of those desiccated Pharaohs dug up by Victorian Englishmen.
Mallow. They will be waiting. They are too early for everything. A familiar clench of frustration. “You know what today is?” He must have noticed the change in my expression. Lately my cheeks have hollowed; when I’m annoyed I look 300.
“Today is the day you took your daughter to meet your parents.”
It’s too much, placing me in the middle of a lineage. They’re not ready for it, I’m not either. “Mother” is confusing too, I think of having one, not being one. For a second, I want to look fabulous getting off the train, be effortlessly perfect with her. I get hold of myself. I have carried her all the way here from New Zealand. If that is not enough, they can fuck off. It’s not about me anymore anyway; I’m the support act now. I will be for the rest of my life. It’s like loosening a collar, I feel myself relaxing, receding. Something new has been added. I should have done this years ago, I can’t believe it’s this easy.
They’re waiting at the barrier. They’re all crying. My mother is holding half a dozen helium balloons. They look like they’re going to lift her into the air and out over the open roof of the station. My sister is covering her mouth with her hand and sobbing. Her nails are very long, with square white tips, like a porn star. As we get closer she cries harder. My mother is trying to cheer, but it comes out as wailing. Her hair is the same colour purple as the biggest balloon, which says EVE ALEXANDRA HERO in swirly gold writing. Her ski jacket matches her lipstick: Rimmel Heather Shimmer. Sudden flashback to her redoing it in The Chimes, while the taxi driver waited outside, beeping. My dad says very little, shakes John’s hand, smiles at everyone, and nobody in particular. They try to take our bags, but they’re disoriented, cack-handed, we’re all tangled up in suitcases and the balloon ribbons. My mother is on top of me, clawing at the sling.
“Let me bless her. Let me bless her.”
My coat is soaked. She is shaking around a small plastic bottle in the shape of a mountain grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary on it. The baby sleeps, oblivious.
“This is Eve…” I pull down the front of the pack, trying not to sound too smug or too proud, fail completely.
“God bless her. God bless her”- my mother kisses the air a few inches above Eve’s head, throwing more water.
A few drops land in the cradle cap on the open bit of her skull, where the brain pulses when I’m feeding her.
“Stop that, will you she’s blessed now, put that away for fuck sake!”
She steps back, impressed by the aggression. The following year, when she is dying, and I am back in New Zealand, I’ll look at the photographs; standing on her own in front of the departure board, balloons about to bear her off, a tiny purple mascot, pink- haired, (“Karolina from the B&B showed me how to do it, two packets of dye, five euros from the Polish supermarket”) eye teeth bared in a furious determination to celebrate, whether or not anyone wants it. Another one, me beside her, hefty post-birth, poleaxed from jet lag, the baby in a sling, presented for the camera, not hidden, not taken away like hers was. 40 years between those two children, maybe longer. I don’t know how old she is now, Mammy’s daughter. She got the same train as I did, down from Dublin. She came back alone, no sleeping weight strapped to the front of her. Her mother told people she was up there for kidney stones.
In the car later I put their fingers alongside each other, my mother and my daughter. I look more like my father’s side, but you can’t tell my hands and Mammy’s apart in a photo. The baby’s are the same, long, and wrinkled and elegant.
“Piano fingers, Han called it.” I can hear Mammy in the back, whispering to Eve about my grandmother. I look back at them through the driver’s mirror, Mammy’s flamingo head leaning into the car seat, Eve’s jack o’lantern grin back up at her.
“We’re going to have the best time, you and me girl.”
Noelle’s essay was judged winner of the Short Memoir Prize in the Fish Publishing International Writing Competition 2020.