– Anna Byrne

‘Children,’ my mother says. Above all else, she says, children are what will shake me out of whatever’s gotten into me. She uses the fingers on her right hand to point out all the good things I have. A career, a house, most of all a man that will put up with me. But I am still her daughter. Pain ties us together. So she shields me from Robert’s phone calls, tells him I am out.

We are in the kitchen. Since I came back, my mother must be occupied, always. She rummages through presses, wearing a path from the table to cooker to fridge. I have upset her routine of talking back to the radio; of thumbing the Sunday papers mid-week and letting her tea go cold before she brews another.

My father says nothing. On my first night back, in a frenzy of decision making, I told him I loved him. He moved his head, a little downward movement, his eyes searching his chest, maybe looking for the thing I said I loved. His heart is what I love. When I was little, I would sit on his knee and listen to his heartbeat through his shirt, my nose buried in the smell of oil and sweat.

In my old bedroom I wake up as though I have just closed my eyes for a moment. I watch the dawn wash away the night, and I lie there, drifting, and morning comes to me on the tide of this drifting. I stretch out in the luxury of having given up. I have nowhere to go, nothing to be.

Of course, sometimes Robert calls and it can’t be avoided, I have to speak with him. I wedge the cord of the telephone under the hall door and listen to our breathing. I imagine I can hear grating, the thick cords running through the Irish Seas’ stony bed.  But then I realize it is my teeth, grinding against each other. My mother sings tunelessly to herself in the kitchen, the level dropping every time she hears my voice.

‘Soon,’ I say when he asks when I am coming home. Just not right now.  He respects my right to space. He tells me so. Robert is very good at making boxes. I know he’ll box himself into work in the university, where he teaches three days a week. And the lab that he researches in. The thoughts of me will be put into the smallest box, at the back of his mind. Maybe I should have myself delivered to him. In a big bright, bow tied box, and say, here you go, have a look at this, see if you have a spare part that can sort this out.

‘Was that Robert?’ my mother asks innocently. She’s washing the salt out of a ham for dinner. I replace the phone in its cradles, gently and go out into the fields.

I find an old fox den. And the stream where we caught minnows in jars. We drove our toes into the soft mud and watched the water cloud up. When the straw was baled we stood on them as my father pushed them along, the stubble curving along the hill and the sky the colours you thought didn’t exist in nature – purple, pink, orange. All of those memories are there, waiting. I dig into them.

I get back in the evening and my mother’s worry troops out like a line of ants. She wants something tangible to feed to the family about me. She wants to understand, and for me to understand that this, whatever this is, is identifiable.

I eat a sandwich, picking off the crust and feeding it to the dog. She sighs. Later, she whispers my crisis to my brother and sister through wire thick with static, trembling under the pressure of all those words.

Up in my room, I watch the last of the light fade across the walls and think. Where’s the map, the graph so we can chart this thing?  If I squint enough can I see it on the walls of my bedroom, in the lint in the pockets of my school pinafore?

Maybe it started with the funerals.

Fascinating, what you can get hooked on. First, it was only family. A thought would dart across my mind and I’d stop it. But then I’d take a peek, turn it this way and that. What if…? I’d think. Imagine… And then I started easing the images out a little, teasing them so they fluffed up.

On my way to work I’d rehearse the speech for my brothers’ funeral. I’d be peeling potatoes and suddenly, there I was, deciding what my sister would wear for her eternal journey. My throat would start to hurt and tears would well up and I’d see myself in the fogged up kitchen window and watch the tears. At breakfast, as Robert spoke and I cleared the dishes, my plate was an urn being carried to a lacquered security box. The morning newspaper was a psalm book. I couldn’t stop. Alone in the house I might check I had the right black dress, and if my good black shoes were heeled.  Soon the funerals grew, weeds across any other thought until it involved everyone; the cashier in the late night shop, the man walking his dog, the baby being pushed on the swings. It happened in work, with me choosing cremation over burial for my colleagues. Once, I had to hide my face in my hands, after picturing the canteen worker, laid out in her wedding dress. Her small children uncomprehending, her husband unbelievably handsome in grief.

And the only funeral I couldn’t imagine was the one for the thing that would have become a baby. You can’t have a funeral for something that wasn’t even ready to be born. For a funeral, your heart needs to stop. What happens if the heart never started? It’s putting the cart before the horse, as my father would say.

Of course, I can’t tell anyone these things. I shouldn’t even be thinking them.

On the fine evenings we drag chairs outside. The dog lies at my feet. We eat meat and salad, potatoes from the garden, chives. My parents drink wine and, like a child, I drink diluted orange. Whatever got better than white bread cheese sandwiches and diluted orange in a My Little Pony flask? Whatever got better? An eight hour work day? A couple of fucks to round off the week? Don’t make me laugh.

The wine opens my mothers mouth and she talks and talks and talks. I listen to the words and after a while I listen to the patterns of what she says, the tone going down, the little laughs she inserts and how it breaks the talk, like a chorus, and then she talks again, on and on. Later, they go inside to watch television.

We’ll have the kids, Robert says in one of his nightly calls. If that’s want you want. As if he’s offering me the last bite of lasagne, the last piece of strawberry cheesecake.

He was at a week-long seminar when it happened. Too early even to tell him what might have been. I don’t miss him. I feel like he is the one that never existed.

I sleep. Once the light is gone from the day, I sleep. How simple we are, to sleep away a third of our lives. I lie in the long length of too much sleep, curl around it. I see myself as I am – a tiny piece of everything else, the room, the house, the ground the air, my mother, my father. This thought rolls across my mind, a marble across wooden floorboards.

The next morning, the rain starts before breakfast. I am light on my feet, moving from room to room, watching a huge roiling cloud of dirty grey inch over the fields towards the house. My mother comes to the window of the living room, where I stand, gazing into the thrumming rain.

‘Your father needs you. He’s moving cattle,’ she says. Wind nips at the trees.

‘In this weather,’ I say lightly, enjoying the sound of our voices in the dim room. She doesn’t reply and I move towards the door. She stops me with an intake of breath, a tea towel gripped in her hands.

‘Robert,’ she starts. ‘He called this morning.’ She licks her lips delicately, as though tasting sugar. ‘He’s coming tomorrow.’

The question is formed in my mind, but before it reaches my lips my mother speaks. ‘The doctor’s office called the house, pet.  You missed your check-up.’ She is silent, as silent as my father, looking at me. I look at the tea towel.

I change into rubber boots two sizes too big. My father is waiting under the branches of a tree, the cattle corralled in a small pen at the top of the narrow field they have grazed down to the nub. My job is to stand at a gate and make sure they go past it, to the end of the lane where an old five bar gate yawns open, waiting. I squeeze past the cattle, pressing against their enormous warmth, their curly headed dirt. Rain, saliva and snot hang from their nostrils. They rolls their eyes, moan lowly. The rain is louder than I expected.

When I get to the gate I test it sturdiness, held fast with baling twine. I climb, sitting on the top bar of wet rusted metal. I haven’t worn a jacket, and the rain falls steady, then steadier. I wipe it from my eyes, peering through the sheets of water, watching the herd pick through the mud. A low rumbling of thunder comes from the belly of the grey cloud.  Lightning flashes in the corner of my eye.

The cattle react in slow motion. They lower their heads and raise them again, sniffing the air. They buck and the wildness spreads through them. They rear into a canter and build speed, veering towards me. I crouch, lifting out of my seat. My father shouts. They are coming for the gate I am perched on. Galloping, bucking, roaring into their freedom.

A funeral vision flashes across my brain. Every single person is me. We are all babbling at once. I grieve and I am comforted by myself as I look at me lying in a box.

Mud and water fill my mouth. My father pulls me up. He’s kneeling down on the mud slicked ground.

‘Are you alright?’ he says. He holds me by the left shoulder, wiping my face with his sleeve, pushing my hair back.

I gulp. Nod. Gulp. He squints across the field.  The cattle have slowed to a trot along the hill.

‘You took a fair land there, girl. Honest to God.’ He pats my arms, like a frisker. ‘Go on up to the house,’ he says. ‘I’ll finish here.’

‘No,’ I say, my voice shaking. I feel floppy, like I’ve got rubber for bones. My boots have fallen off.  My socks are pushed, soggy, around my ankles. The gate lies, ruined in the mud. Rain streams down my back. ‘No. I’m ok.’

His fingers grip my shoulders. I hear the thump, thump, of a heartbeat. My own.