What you desperately want, in tandem with time – that illusion of freedom – is for your child to be the best. And get the best. This is the continuum of the maternal embrace: the provision of wholeness, the want of nothing. In exchange for silent mornings, you hand over your four-year-old child to the state to be educated. Before this moment, you wallowed. Your son, with flawless soft skin, as a two-and-three-year-old, snuggled deeper into the crook of your elbow, the dip in your collarbone. He nuzzled into your warmth as you talked to him in your perfected ‘mother’ voice.
You’ve a sense of treacle dripping, lush and heavy. You become conscious of the desire within this wallowing. And yet you fear (though it ebbs and wanes) the day when he will say goodbye. So you encourage your mini-man to watch his father from the corner of one exposed eye in the knowledge that he and not his father is the preferred male in the household. Your husband Sepp, a stranger now, rolls his eyes and sighs loudly. It seems he is in a permanent state of irritation as much as you are in one of sweetness. You brush an old image from your mind: laughing with him as you waltzed along the river Regnitz and ahead ready to greet you, Bamberg’s Old Town Hall.
“Don’t spoil him like that. He’ll turn into a mama’s boy.” His voice is gruff without a trace of how it once whispered.
“Like you?” you reply, not able to look at him, pursing your lips as you apply pressure on each stroke of the boy’s hair.
You believe his startling eyes are a sign of his impending greatness. Sepp believes in genetics; simply they are as much the blue of his side of the family as his dark curls are from yours. There is no mystery in the boy, he says.
Your sister Sheila dotes on him when he giggles. He transports you and your sister to childhood. Two sisters, girls again, fantasising. Things have possibility. Excitement is in the air.
“Isn’t he a howl?” she says, her head thrown back, laughing. “He’s such a charmer; they’ll be vying for him when he’s older.”
“What do you think he’ll be?” you ask, suddenly not caring that she’s put her claim on him. “An actor? A politician?”
“A star on the stage,” she giggles. Like him you think, realising he’s inherited, somehow, your sister’s childish giggle. “Oh,” she continues, her face flushed, “he’ll make us our millions and bring us to Hollywood. We’ll wear satin to the Oscars; I’ll wear red and you’ll wear emerald green.”
Your son claps his hands; his eyes bright. And then his fingers, knuckles hidden by smudges of fat, cover his eyes. Ahhh he says as he peeps out at you. Sepp shakes his head, muttering disapproval before disappearing into his study. He turns up Beethoven, conducting the maestro from the comfort of his black leather recliner. He’s found a way to get back to Germany, you think. Rain patters the windows. You, your sister and your son giggle conspiratorially together about nothing at all. It is a Saturday, like any other Saturday.
Laid out in a neatly penned list, your life is perfectly arranged. There’s an oil crisis, people marching the streets and you hear on the radio of women your age gathering together, eyes painted shocking blues with long lashes. They travel up North on trains from the Republic and bring back illegal contraceptives. All the talk is of the pill as they claim the right to their bodies, fists held high.
Still, you remain here, silent, with the boy holding the household together like the rough tacking you do on the skirts you make. Sepp works in Dublin for a pharmaceutical company. You treat yourself to a gin and tonic every other day. It’s a sunny, south-facing house where you are. On a narrow road, which leads, taking a left, into Dublin city centre, or right, to the Dublin Mountains. To the boy it’s the only home he’s known. There are times when you smile at each other, glad that you have your own memories of different homes where the boy had no part. Other times you forget about the selves you had before his arrival. You’ve overseen the rewiring of the original 1930s mess, tamed the wild garden. Sepp’s clearly made his mark on the house: he painted the doorframes cherry red, the garage door canary yellow. And as you prowl the house, pulling the superser heater behind you for warmth, it comes to you: your duty is to nurture him, put a stamp of personality on him. It’s a right transferred by the blood of your womb in a code deciphered by mother and son. Everything written from the moment of conception: his due date, his birth date, his love life, his career, his death.
The day has come.
The right to education is written in the Constitution and as a citizen, you must cherish all children of the nation. You fear that when he leaves you, he will not be cherished. At the school entrance there is chaos. Alongside the bicycles and cars, clatters of mothers dressed like you manoeuvre hoards of boys, copies of each other in mud-brown uniforms. As you glance around at the other children, so small, so lost, so childish, you suddenly feel it in your bones that he’s grand. You follow the arrows towards his classroom.
The boy kisses you lightly on the cheek; the wet, lingering, puppy-like kisses have vanished with time. You hold his hand as he tries to pull away. With the other hand he’s waving goodbye. With a smile on his face he merges with the rows of small grey chairs. On the wall there is a poster with a blue sky and a black bird. Éan it says. Bird. You take a deep breath; it would not do to cry.
You look around the kitchen. The floor with its lemon and lime lino shining. Even though it didn’t need it, you’ve given it a good scrubbing. The presses are free of finger smudges. You boil the kettle; listen to the hum of the fridge. You put on the radio, listen to Gay Byrne. You even tap your foot in time to a tune he plays. Frankie’s one of your favourites. You must root out an old LP, you think. Put it on, have a dance for yourself. You can do that now. You have the time.
You stare at the kitchen door to the hallway. You have the time, you whisper. You slip off your tan t-bar wedges, tip-toe in your stocking feet into Sepp’s study. You slide open the drawer full of LPs, running your fingers over and through them as if flicking pages of a book. You lift one out, its edges centering each palm as you carefully rotate it. You run your nail along its grooves. A jagged edge leaves a fine scratch across the black rings. It is beautiful, this imperfection on the sheen of the black. And you slip it back in its sleeve, close the drawer, silently. You tap the drawer, waiting. For nothing.
You breathe in. And then you twirl, holding your arms out like you did when you were a girl. You listen carefully to the sound the nylon of your tights makes against the wool of the carpet as the ball of your foot rotates. You throw your head back and twirl again.
Laughing, you walk slowly to the kitchen, slide your feet into the shoes. You glance at the clock. You have time to make the lunch. Surely, the boy will be hungry after his first day at school. Brown bread. And jam, for a treat. You cover them in clingfilm, smoothing the wrinkles out with your palm. You think maybe later you could make a brack together, a trial run for Halloween. You could wrap coins in greaseproof paper, count them out. You could make flapjacks, let him lick the spoon.
“It’s like waiting for a hero,” says one mother as you all crowd around the double doors, vying to spot their big boy or girl first.
“Except instead of the Rolling Stones’ autographs, we’re hoping for our children’s survival in there.” You try to be witty.
She nods but she doesn’t smile. For the foreseeable future, these are the people you’ll spend time with twice a day. You hope you’ll find some common ground, other than the children. Eventually, you suppose, you’ll share laughter over scalding tea.
“Here they are,” the woman says without looking at you.
Elbows out, he’s winding past the other children in the line. In unconscious imitation, you push your way through the crowd so that you’re at the front of the group. You can hear the teacher shouting at him to get into line right now. You rush forward, lifting him high off the ground and tucking him into the side of your neck like you would an expensive scarf. He is silent and averts his eyes.
“What’s the matter?” you ask as you put him back down on the ground.
You cup his chin in your hand, turning his face to yours. Instead he breaks away, flings himself onto the peacock-blue velour skirt you made for this, his first day at school. Flustered, you move back from the crowd, away from the glances, the boy’s sobs getting louder as you stroke his hair. You hold his hand tightly and push against the tide of mothers and children now making their way out of the school.
A teacher stops you. “The exit is that way.” She smiles sympathetically.
“I’m looking for the Headmaster,” you say in your best professional voice.
Her smile disappears.
“Miss Murphy’s class,” you quickly add.
She bends down to his level. “Who’s such a big boy in school then?” Her voice is warm, tone soft.
You resist the urge to slap her youthful cheeks. You feel your grip tightening on your best boy.
“I don’t think you heard me correctly, Miss. I want to speak to the Headmaster, not the teacher who has clearly upset my son.”
From the corner of your eye you see he’s no longer crying. He’s curling his hair with his index finger the way he does when he’s tired or when he wants to listen to you telling tales of the Fianna so that he’ll dream of eating the salmon of knowledge.
Miss Murphy comes up the corridor and is even prettier than this young teacher with whom she exchanges a silent knowing smile. She asks if you’re okay; she saw you upset earlier.
You cross your arms across your chest, releasing the boy’s hand. “It’s not me who is traumatised on the first day at school! Just take a look at him!”
Your voice is higher-pitched than normal. This is nonsense, the whole scene in the school corridor. You’re making what your grandmother called a holy show of yourself. Genetics, you think. It is to do with genetics. You grab his hand, gripping it tightly again and clear your throat loudly. He looks at his shoes; you know he’s imagining they’re hooves. You know this, you think, and this woman does not. He stomps his foot. You squeeze him too tightly and he tries to pull away.
“Neigh!” he says, moving his head around.
“Just stay still,” you hiss, releasing him.
“Neigh! Neigh!” he says, again, louder, looking at you, his eyes full of love.
Miss Murphy watches him as he hops from foot to foot. “It wasn’t so bad today, was it?”
“I’m the best boy, Miss Murphy!”
“Won’t you come here again?”
He nods, grinning. “I’m a big boy at school.”
“Well then, as I was saying,” you begin. You pause, embarrassed. “Sorry to have taken up so much of your time. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. And we’ll see you, big boy, tomorrow.”
She ruffles his hair; he laughs. She nods at you and turns. The sound of her heels clicking like the snap of Frankie’s fingers.
“Bye, bye,” he trills after her as he stomps his feet again. “I’ve got happy horsey feet! I’m the best horse in the world. Neigh!”
He continues his horsey games as you walk home with him, too aware of the blister forming on your heel. He bounds forward, a dot in the distance, then springs back leaping in the air.
His leather satchel sits on your shoulder.
You count to ten to stop yourself slapping him.
About Shauna: Born in Dublin, Ireland, Shauna has worked and lived in Mexico, Spain, India and the UK. She is currently completing a PhD in Writing at the University of Glamorgan, Wales. Her work has been published widely and has given public readings of her fiction and has presented on writing at academic conferences in Ireland, UK, Germany and USA. Her first novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere will be published by Ward Wood Publishing in June 2012.