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The Coalblack Sea

© Máighréad Medbh

Excerpt from Part One: Mother


"Well, the coal-black sea waits for me, me, me.
The coal-black sea waits forever.
The waves hit the shore, crying more, more, more,
But the coal-black sea waits forever."

(From 'Cremation – Ashes to Ashes' by Lou Reed)



The child paused, his eyes wide as a fish's. They were gentle eyes with enormous questions at their base. Dependent eyes. She noticed.
"Eat the fucking Weetabix. I gave it to you. Don't throw it back in my face."
She shouldn't have said 'fucking'. That was bad.
He picked up his spoon and instead of putting it into his cereal bowl, turned it over and guided his index finger over its smooth hump-back, learning not just the feel of stainless steel but the shape of the world and the hardness of the implements we use. He preferred to eat with his hands. Much.
"Eat it!" she yelled.
His body started. Tears mushroomed from where they normally bedded down and made swamps of his eyes. He still looked at her with the blankness of his age. She pounded the table and shouted.
"Just put the spoon in the bowl, take a bit of Weetabix in it and put it to your mouth."

The swamps of his eyes sprouted streams that dropped into his open mouth as if it were a cave in a sea-cliff. He took a quivering bite, then another. She dug into her own cereal, every mouthful echoing.
For a few minutes they ate in silence. The anger wasn't easing. Her nerves were still ready for battle. She could observe herself and it didn't change a thing. She watched herself act this way, heard the words come out, but was powerless to stop them. The morning was clear. Spring. Sunday. There might have been nobody outside the windows, but she knew that within an hour there would be sounds of doors opening and closing, people getting into cars and going to Mass, the walking of dogs, jogging, cycling.

This was a residential area three miles from the city centre, fifty years old, with the character that comes with age, minus pretensions. Peter had inherited the house from an uncle. Wonderful, Adrian had said. Lucky you, said Breda. It was red-bricked, semi-detached, solid, not like housing estate legoland. You'd have to be a toy to live in them. They had carried out various necessary renovations before they had moved in, but otherwise had done very little with the house. Joan had no interest. One roof was as good as another to her. They had got nice furniture and Peter had had it painted and papered. Six years on, they had made no further changes.

The kitchen faced south-east, so it was sunny in the mornings. Today the back garden, wild with untended bushes and withered flowers, was in a pale yellow wash which made even that mess look bearable. She should have brightened, but her lower back had an irritating ache and her limbs were stiff. She wanted to lie in bed forever.

Miriam fiddled with the milk carton, then suddenly turned it upside down and shook it. Milk flooded the table. Joan, who had been staring out the window without seeing anything much, was startled. The sight of the spreading pool on the table made her push back her chair and yell.

"What the hell did you do that for?" The three-year-old cowered. "What the hell are you doing? Didn't I tell you not to turn the carton over? Never, ever, turn the carton over." The child made a nervous shrug which Joan took as defiance. She hit her on the shoulder. That wasn't enough. Twice, three times, four, five, she didn't count.

"Mammy. Mammy," Seán said weakly through his sobs.
He was soft-hearted, always had been, the kind of child who could make the stones smile. He talked to everybody. Where he got it from she couldn't make out. Miriam was bawling. Joan stopped and grabbed everything off the table in fierce gusts.

"Get out. Go into the sitting-room and watch TV. Get away from me or I won't be responsible. Just go."
She mopped up the spill, her hand tingling from the blows it had given, the rush of anger having pumped the body out of its stiffness into compulsion.

When she was finished the table glistened, the kitchen beamed. The dishes twinkled in the draining board, the strengthening sun making rainbows in the bubbles which clung to cup handles and the bases of bowls. She placed her two hands on the edge of the sink and stared out the window. She had to do something to make this alright. Peter hadn't come home from night duty yet. She didn't want him to know what had happened. He knew she yelled but didn't know that she hit them. He was sentimental. The cores of his cheeks softened when he looked at his children. At her too.

Every Sunday was the same, the last straw of the week. She would make things better. She would go in there and say something. She would give them something sweet. Now, wait a minute. They weren't allowed anything sweet this early. You didn't crumble in front of children, however sorry you were. You had to keep your composure. They couldn't see you weak or they'd take advantage of you; that's what Adrian always said. That didn't mean she should hit them. But she had told her over and over. How much must you bear?

The routine never varied. Day after day the same needs and conflicts. Struggling to get up, struggling to get the meals, struggling to stay motivated. No-one called, no-one phoned. She wasn't exactly one for the coffee mornings, even if she had invites, and she had no friends anymore. The children hardly ate what was cooked, ran around dragging blankets off the bed, throwing toys around the place, always going, Mammy can I have, Mammy look, Mammy where's my...?

Then you were out wheeling the buggy and women smiled at you as if there was something funny about all this. As if there was something to be enjoyed here. Joan went to the door of the sitting-room. They were sitting on the floor two feet from the TV. Their shoulders were crushed together, Miriam's wispy blond hair unbrushed and snaking over the red neck band of Seán's pyjamas. Seán was biting his fingernails with studious attention. The music of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles was obscenely frenetic, jabbing into the space beyond the screen, assaulting thought.

"Sit back a bit," she said, more sharply than she had intended. "And if you're going to watch that rubbish, put on your clothes while you're doing it."

The instruction didn't make a lot of sense. She was slipping in every way.

She gave Seán his clothes and started to dress Miriam. Miriam wasn't properly toilet trained yet. She seemed to be resisting it. Probably because of me, Joan thought. Her nappy was dirty. Joan sighed angrily, picked her up and took her to the bathroom.

"Turtles", shouted Miriam.
"You can see them in a minute. You don't want to be sitting there like that." She was disgusted at the thought.

She ploughed through the changing. It was always an effort. So demeaning, the things you had to do for children. There they were waiting and if you didn't do something, no-body would. Those blank, needy looks. You had to initiate everything. You had to make a life for them, make the world into something for them, give it a face and a meaning when it had none. The only meaning for her was surviving the day, trying somehow to keep them healthy and all those inanities bombarding her all the time. Cartoons, sweets, advertising, people with stupid grins when the child grabbed something in the supermarket and threw it on the floor. People were so ready to come up to you when you had a buggy and say whatever they liked, from, "There's a lovely little girl", to a disapproving, "She should wear a hat in this weather". Joan would scowl and bark at those people. Would they be there to help her at home when she was pulling on a sleeve and it got caught in a thumb, pulling up a trousers and the zip stuck, bending down, forever bending, always looking down because everything ended up on the floor? Children were always on the floor, rolling around, lolling back, feet sideways, while you were trying to tie their laces. As if it were important to you to do those things, when it was all for them.

She frequently forgot why she should care for them. Of what benefit was it to her? It wasn't like previous generations when children would be your protectors in your old age. Now you never expected that. Joan certainly didn't, that's one thing she was clear on. She had never minded her parents, so how could she have expected her children to mind her? Her father hadn't mattered, but her mother, she hadn't minded her either. She always returned to the fact that she was responsible for bringing them into the world. It wasn't their fault they were here, so she owed them.

When Miriam was sorted, she set about ordering the house. Seán's sheet was wet. She yanked it off the bed, cursing, stormed downstairs and shoved it into the washing machine. She hadn't intended to say anything, but she found herself at the door of the sitting-room again, where they were now cavorting on the floor, tickling each other with a teddy. First Seán would do it, saying "ickle ickle ickle", then Miriam would grab it and do it to him. They were awkward, their little hands not quite making their mark, and they were being gentle with each other, a rare occurrence.

The sweetness of the situation caused a slight twirl at the edges of their mother's mouth, which she promptly straightened again. She was excluded from their fun. By virtue of the fact that she had hit Miriam, she didn't deserve to delight in this now. It was by their own resourcefulness that they retained good humour.

She said, "Seán, you're going to have to stop wetting the bed. It's just not on," and left them to it. That was reasonable at least.
Very soon she'd have to take them out for a walk. It wasn't good for them to stay in on a day like this. She sat at the kitchen table, picked up her book and began to read.

"Mammy, Mammy," Miriam came running, "Seán hit me."
"Seán, get in here."
He didn't come.
He came defensively, leaning against the wall in the corridor.
"Did you hit her?"
"He hit me. He hit me!"
"Tell the truth. I'm not going to do anything to you."
"You are. You're going to hit me. Like you always do."
"I don't...." she began gruffly, then stopped. "Okay, I do hit you sometimes, but I won't now."
"You can hit us, but we can't hit you."

Pushing it, but his courage impressed her enough to override her indignation. Clever child he was. With a sense of justice. Maybe she had done something right.
She meant to say, "You're absolutely right, son." Instead she said, "Sometimes adults have to teach children things."
"Hitting isn't teaching."
"Just don't hit each other, alright?"
He didn't answer.
"He hit me, Mammy," whined Miriam, and she clung to her mother's arm, honey-hair wild, aqueous eyes looking straight at Joan.

How could she look to her mother for justice after she had hit her? How long do children keep coming back before they develop resentment or caution?
Arbitration. She couldn't arbitrate. Judge yes. The child's touch made a softening sensation rise from her lower stomach but she clamped it. Two ways to go now. She was seething.

"Okay. Listen. Would you like to do some painting?"
Miriam nodded. Seán didn't answer.

By the time the paints were set up and they'd started, Peter was home.