Róisín Leggett Bohan
‘Eat up now love, you need your nourishment.’
She’s leaning against the cooker, arms folded, smiling at me. Mrs Crowley is at the sink washing up Brendan’s breakfast things, she always does it for him.
‘She’s a feckin’ eejit cleaning up after him, can’t he do it himself,’ she says, chuckling away so much I can’t help it and let a burst of a laugh out of me.
Mrs Crowley turns in surprise, her frilly apron sopping down the front with the suds coming off the bowl she’s holding.
‘What are you laughing at, Sophie?’
She’s staring at me as if I’m mad or something, the dripping bubbles landing on the floor.
She can’t see Mam.
I look down at my cereal.
‘Nothing, just remembering a joke a girl from school told me, sorry.’
She smiles a wary smile.
‘All right pet, finish your breakfast so and get ready.’
I lift my head and nod. I want to smile back at her sometimes but she’s not my mother. She tries to be nice, she wraps my pyjamas in a hot water bottle before bed and gets rice crispies for me at the weekend but I hate the way she calls me “pet”, I’m not a dog or anything.
I look up to see Mam, but she’s gone again.
I stare at the cheerios, the rings like little lifebuoys swimming in milk. I wonder if I dived into the bowl could they save me from drowning. But I’m not small, I’m tall and lanky, tallest eleven year old in my class. Mrs Crowley says ‘I’m a pull through for a rifle’. I don’t know what she’s on about but the way she says it makes me think it’s not a good thing. I spoon up the last few hoops, guzzle down the last of the milk, my mouth around the edge of the bowl. I pretend I’m old Father Hegarty saying mass at St Columbus.
‘Body of Christ.’
And all the old people and me say back to him,
‘Blood of Christ.’
Then he gulps down the last dregs from the chalice like a mad thing. I suppose he loves Jesus so much he wants to drink his blood. You wouldn’t catch me doing it. Anyway, it’s all fake, I don’t think there’s any blood in it at all.
I asked Sister Agnes about that once and she laughed,‘Oh, you’re a sweet child, do you know that my Sophie?’ And she wasn’t making fun of me like some grown-ups do when they think they know everything and I know nothing. I love it when she laughs, it’s like her face brightens up like a buttercup opening when the sun comes out.
The kitchen door bangs open. He’s always noisy, it’s like he needs to be heard before he’s seen, to send out a warning or something. Brendan is Mrs Crowley’s son, much older than me, goes to college.
‘Going to be a lawyer someday, my lovely boy.’
Mrs Crowley always says that, proud as anything.
He looks at his Mam.
‘I’m off so.’
She fusses over him.
‘Here pet, I made you lunch.’
Hands him over a plastic bag with ham sandwiches, a bag of crisps and a carton of juice like he’s still twelve or something.
He throws his eyes up to heaven. One time he told me he never eats his Mam’s lunch, gives it away or throws it in the bin, buys a bag of chips instead. Maybe that’s why he has so many spots. Too many chips. He raises his huge forehead at me and grins. He’s much taller than me and has a long face, his lips are puffy, not like a normal boy’s. He comes over and squeezes my shoulders with his huge hands, I scrunch them up and give out a squeal. He laughs. Mrs Crowley gives out to him.
‘Stop at her, off out, or you’ll miss your bus.’
He turns and laughs and doesn’t even kiss his mother goodbye. I’d kiss my mother goodbye if I still had one to kiss. I touch the spot on my forehead and remember the last kiss I got from Mam before she died. I look up and she’s here in the kitchen again, her red hair flowing down her shoulders.
‘A right little trickster isn’t he.’ She gives me a wink.
I wink back when Mrs Crowley isn’t looking.
Mam and me used to visit Sister Agnes every Sunday. Well it’s not like we can talk to her or anything. Mam says she’s in an enclosed order. That means she has to be silent and not touch anyone and pray a lot for the world and us. When we’re at Mass I look at the nuns behind the grille and try to spot Sister Agnes. They’re all very holy, big brown veils with white trimming covering their heads. One time the sun shone through the coloured glass of the church windows and I could see little bright shapes on Sister Agnes’s face made by the shadows of the grille. I said to Mam once it’s like a prison but Mam says Sister Agnes is happy with God. She is my Mam’s best friend. Her real name is Sarah and she and Mam were like sisters growing up. Sister Agnes said she used to mind me when I was small and that I was a very good runner even then. We get to see her face to face once a year when it’s her feast day. I love feast days. I still go to Mass at St. Columbus every Sunday, but I tell Mrs Crowley I’m going to the running track. Mrs Crowley wouldn’t mind I’d say but she might want to come with me and I wouldn’t want that. It’s my secret with Mam and Sister Agnes.
I am fast. Mam says I run like the wind. ‘And wild is the wind’ she’d sing, she couldn’t sing for bananas. I won all the races at school sports last summer. Mam was there, screaming from the sidelines, I wasn’t embarrassed. I got through to the county finals but Mam had to go back to hospital so I couldn’t go. Mam was a runner, the fastest in her class too. I love running, it’s like the air goes into my ears and I can’t hear anything or think anything except to move my legs faster and faster. I don’t hear Mam coughing or catching her breath or the machines beeping in the hospital.
My hair is long and red like Mam’s but her hair fell out. She wore a woolly hat the nuns made her. Mad colours in it and silver stars stuck on. She called it her hippy hat. I hold it to my nose at night in Mrs Crowley’s house. I used to get her smell from it but I don’t anymore. I cried for two days after Mrs Crowley washed it. At least I still have my pink pyjamas with the horses, they’ve gone all thin from the wearing and I’m too big for them now but I don’t care. I made Mrs Crowley swear she would never throw them away. They’re the last thing Mam bought for me, the very last day I saw her out of bed. They let her out of hospital to go shopping with me.
‘Our special day together,’ she said, ‘just you and me.’
Well it wasn’t just her and me ‘coz Mam had to promise the doctor she’d allow a nurse to come along to push the wheelchair and mind the oxygen. She begged them. The doctor said no but the important older doctor said okay so, her hazel eyes big and round worked wonders.
‘If you don’t let me go I’ll come back and haunt you Mr. Hardy, all respects to you.’
She half smiled at him. The poor man couldn’t say no, you can’t say no to Mam when she looks at you like that. The oxygen tank was hooked onto the wheelchair, massive thing. I lifted it for Mam once and she let out a shriek.
‘Jesus Sophie, don’t, you’ll break your back.’
I think about that special day all the time.
‘Oh look at the horses on those pyjamas Sophie, they’re galloping like you.’
She treated me to chips and nuggets and a blue slushie. She wouldn’t eat a chip though, not even a sip of her coffee. Mam used to love her coffee.
I’m strong, I know I’m strong ‘coz Mam always told me. It’s what she told me that day in the bed with the tubes coming out of her arm and the beeping of the machines too loud.
‘You know darling, when I’m gone you’ll be strong won’t you.’
‘I started to cry but then I stopped myself ‘coz I could see her eyes go sad.
‘Listen love, it will be hard at the start but it will get better, Mrs Crowley is doing a good job looking after you and the social worker says she’s such a nice lady and her house is near the running track and Sister Agnes.’
‘Love.’ The spaces between her breaths were really short, like she was drowning.
‘Listen, you’re a strong girl, and I don’t just mean those running legs of yours, I mean your spirit, the thing that’s inside you, your heart, your heart is strong. And when I’m gone….’
I tried my bestest not to cry, I could feel a knot in my throat but I swallowed instead. She took another big breath of the oxygen.
‘When I’m not around anymore I’ll always be here inside you.’
‘She put her hand on my chest.
Her hand on my head.
Then she chuckled and touched the tip of my nose. I felt better that she was messing with me and I giggled back and tickled her neck.
Oh, you’re a saucy one aren’t you, come here.’
I fell into her arms and I could feel wetness on her chest from tears, I didn’t know if it was laughing tears or crying tears or even my tears.
The week before Christmas and Mrs Crowley’s friend is at the front door. They’re off to the bridge club Christmas party. I’m supposed to be asleep but I’m gazing out the window. It’s snowing and I wish Mam was here to see it.
Mrs Crowley calls,‘Brendan, make sure you leave the landing light on for Sophie.’
‘Alright Mam,’ Brendan answers from his bedroom.
‘And study, remember, exams tomorrow.’
‘Yeah, Mam.’ Brendan calls back but this time he sounds annoyed. The front door closes.
Their voices dwindle off into the night.
A few minutes later there’s a knock on my door. I scramble into bed.
‘Sophie, you awake?’
He doesn’t wait for an answer, just walks in.
I sit up.
‘There you are,’ he says as if he’s surprised or something. ‘I wanted to show you something, come on.’
Nods his head sideways to show me to follow him.
I grab Mam’s hat from under my pillow, I don’t know why.
‘Just sit here Sophie, have a look at this.’ He pats the bed and gets his laptop.
His room is full of huge books about law and smells of half dry clothes and rotten socks. I don’t like this room, don’t like the way his voice sounds.
‘Look at what?’
I sit beside him but not too close.
He presses “play”.
The video is people’s bodies doing animal things, making awful noises.
He’s watching me watching
Goes for his pants’ zipper.
‘I don’t want to look at it,’ I say and go to stand up but he pulls me down on the bed.
‘If you don’t I’ll have to tell my mother and she won’t believe you, you’ll have nowhere to live.’
He grabs my hair and pulls my head down to his lap.
I feel my stomach turning, vomit all over his pants.
‘What the fuck!’
He jumps up, knocks me in the eye so hard I fall down.
‘You bitch, I’m going to call the social on you,’ he screams, all the while trying to clean my sick off his pants.
I see Mam in the corner of the room, she’s fuming.
‘Get the fecker Sophie, hit him where it hurts. Quick, go on, you can do it.’
Something inside me falls apart and goes crazy at the same time. I grab a book called Criminal Law in Ireland, clatter him on the side of the head, then bash the book into the zipper of his pants.
He curls up like a hairy centipede and lies on the floor screaming.
I run down the stairs, out the door.
Running through the snow. One slipper on, the other fallen off. My eye stings. Snowflakes fall on it. My heart pounding in my eardrums and I’m soaked. I feel like a wild horse breaking free, galloping like the ones on my pyjamas.
I sprint across the road, dodge the cars beeping their horns. Outside the shopping centre a Santa Claus is ringing a bell.
‘You alright love?’ he shouts.
I don’t stop. I keep running.
I think of Mam running alongside me, she’s not out of breath and she’s smiling.
‘You’re alright, Sophie. Remember you’re strong, just run love, run.’
My tears feel like icicles on my face, I wipe them away, then I see I’m still holding Mam’s hippy hat. I put it on.
I don’t know how long it takes to get to the convent but all I remember is that I’m banging mad on the door. An old nun opens the slat and squints out at me. I recognize her from Mass. She opens the door. And talks to me nice and soft.
‘Come in child. Where are your clothes? Why are you in your pyjamas?’
I don’t know what to say, I can’t tell her about Brendan and the awful video and him unzipping his pants. My whole body is shivering something terrible and I can’t stop. My teeth are chattering but I get the words out.
‘Sister Agnes, Sister Agnes please.’
The nun knows my face from the Sundays, she wraps her shawl around me.
‘Wait here, child.’
I’m waiting in the tiny room, Holy Mary is in a picture on the wall, she’s looking up and her hand is on her heart. I think she’s sadder than me. Sister Agnes hurries in, all calm and her skin so white. She stands before me and looks at me. She takes my hands in hers. A tear catches the edge of her mouth.
‘You’re the head off your mother,’ she whispers.
She wraps her arms around me and the rosary beads hanging from her belt push into me but it’s the best hug I’ve had since Mam died.
I open my eyes and see Mam standing under the picture of Holy Mary. She winks at me and I wink back.