And Each One of Her Bones Shall Be Broken by Ruth Gilligan
By Ruth Gilligan on April 29, 2017 in Fiction
Day in Cycle: 1
Chance of Love: Medium
When I touch my girl’s face I could swear the bones beneath the skin aren’t the ones I gave her.
‘Lemme take your bag,’ she says, dragging it and me through the chaos of the place. My body lolls behind, stiff from the long haul and the dig of those funny socks with the holes cut out of the heels, more joke than medicine surely?
‘It’s so great to-’
‘I just need the loo before-’
‘Ah Mum, but the car park meter-’
‘Oh well how’s this for a welcome?’
So here we are, the pair of us, snapping already – the very same as always. Excitement pent up and translated transAtlantically just so she can act the Madam and I can bite her head off for the first twenty-four hours, before we settle down just in time to wind me up again for goodbye.
I shamble to the bathroom which they call the ‘restroom’. The automatic flusher goes off before I’m done. The water is cold. The sensor must be on the glitch.
Driving on the right, the Queens sprawl eyesores either side of us.
‘Don’t look don’t look,’ she used to say, mortified. ‘Just wait ‘til we’re on Manhattan and then you can look.’ As if we had really come all this way for the view.
Tonight though, she has a different announcement. ‘Bad news,’ she says. ‘It’s Joey – he’s been called away last minute. I’m so sorry, Mum, he’s gutted to be missing you.’
When she is finished I make to reply, but my own gut stops me, doing a triple lurch. Going down for ‘bad news’ and then up for the realisation – just me and her? Could it really? – and then down again for the guilt at that. Because actually, I’ve always liked him. The boyfriend. The banker. The husband. The American. White teeth and manicured nails but they tell me that that’s the norm over here, not like the entire clods bogged deep into my own Fintan’s, God rest his bones.
Every Sunday I would sit him down and demand the muck out of him, a half-moon scrape that winced him like a baby, though he always let me get through the lot, a single prick of blood beneath the thumb.
‘From the flight?’
‘Did you not-’
‘Ach, you know I never-’
‘What about that eye mask I got you?’
I notice her vowels a bit more nasal this time, but no matter – four whole days to kneed that out of her. And really, when was the last time? Just my baby and me? I decide it sounds a bit like a song, some Yank lad probably, but I’m brimming with the greed of it all the way out the holes of my stupid socks.
‘Oh and there’s also… I have an appointment tomorrow. We got a cancellation. I mean, obviously Joey won’t… But it’d be stupid not to take it, Mum. The clinic’s on Nineteenth so I can just leave you at Macy’s and then-’
‘Róisín,’ I say. ‘Don’t be silly – I’ll come with you.’
Her full name makes her go quiet. They call her ‘Ró’ over here, American gobs apparently not equipped for the rest. Row row row your boat, gently to nineteenth.
The clinic, I think. Very discreet.
‘Thanks,’ she says, quietly. And then louder: ‘OK, now you can look,’ because the scrapers have finally appeared. Blinding yokes, tall enough to challenge God.
I hear her exhale, her lungs finding relief in the loom.
We reach the immaculate apartment block and the concierge calls me Ma’am. The lift tastes like vertigo but it doesn’t quite come. Inside she offers tea but the milk here’s funny and I’m dead on my feet so she insists I take the bed while she makes up the ‘cot’ in the living room. A strange choice of word that, I’ve always thought. But I am past objecting, past even taking off my clothes before I plummet into the covers, a bounce to the four-foot bed. The bed, I try not to think to myself as I drift off, flushed away, the bed that doesn’t seem to be working.
Day in Cycle: 2
Emotional Fertility: Medium
Thick dreams but I am awake before the morning is even sure of itself, my body still on Irish time. I lie on my back, beach-whaled upon the feather topper. I roll over. And I spot it then, pinned up in all its chronological glory. Across the month of May her cycle has been mapped out. ‘OV’ and ‘PER’ on certain days. The length of her ‘Luteal Phase’. And some strange bunny rabbit icon in the corner for when they should be at it like…
I stare, scanning from date to date. And funnily, the first thing that strikes is how very American it is. So open. Too open? My Fintan always furious at even a mention of the monthlies. He pretended his Volvo broke down en route to join me at the maternity hospital – every time! Didn’t arrive until his girls were bathed and swaddled, ready to apple his eye.
I look at it again. A schedule for love. A timetable for lust. And I wonder, as I rise, can the jetlag scupper that one too?
She makes me toast though she only has coffee, careful for splashes on her toothpaste-white shirt.
‘How did you-’
‘Like a log. You?’
‘Are you nervous?’
She doesn’t reply but I am her Mammy so I know the answer is yes and that that is OK.
‘Well, we’d better go, or we’ll-’
‘A schedule to follow.’
I stand up for my coat and close my eyes in the lift. She ducks and weaves us the length of Manhattan’s spine down to the Midtown belly, the city screaming as we go.
The waiting room gleams artificial bright. Mannequin couples, dressed to the nines, though very few of them actually touch. Róisín reads a copy of Vanity Fair. I half-think of saying a rosary.
‘Ross-inn?’ the receptionist heckles high-pitched, a bastardisation if every I heard.
My daughter puts down her magazine and stands. ‘Are we right?’
And I want to say yes you are pet and please God don’t you be thinking otherwise.
‘Doctor Norris this is my mother, Breda Keegan – she’s over visiting. From Ireland. Unfortunately my husband’s away on business, but don’t worry – I’m menstruating this week so we’re not missing any opportunities!’
The doctor laughs loudly with her, this suddenly composed, bashless version of my daughter.
‘So tell me, Mrs. Denver, when did you first come off your contraceptive pill?’
I double take, still a stranger to her married name.
‘And have there been any successful inseminations?’
‘Have you ever, Mrs. Denver, had an abortion?’
Róisín’s eyes flash to mine at that one, a panic and a possibility that vanish just as quickly.
‘And have you been taking Folic Acid?’
Needles and needles of questions I start not to hear, thinking instead to my own time around. There was no problem with the lack of children back then, rather the abundance of them. Contraception contraband. Fruitful and multiplying.
‘And do you smoke, Mrs. Denver?’
‘And how often, Mrs. Denver, do you and your partner perform intercourse?’
But even now it is different back home. Still no abortion and I can’t pretend to disagree. A life is a life, I’ve always thought, especially after my fourth. My little lad.
‘Yes well, we’ve tried the positions, doctor,’ I hear my little girl say now, quick before the sentiment sticks.
‘Missionary for the deeper…’
I am mortified to listen. But I decide that maybe it is nice in a way she doesn’t seem to mind. Can’t imagine my other two would be as easy.
‘Came back negative, but maybe…’
‘On both? To be sure?’
Until suddenly the session has concluded without me. Shaking hands and smiling gums, my right leg numb from the chair as I drag it lame and Doctor, should I have kept those bloody socks on after all?
The other couples glance up as we re-enter the reception, a look of hope that is more like desperation and would break the heart off you. Off me and my baby.
After patients we become tourists. Over to Union Square and down to Soho, trotting down the city’s ribs one by one while the smog and fried onion fumes make globs of our snot. She natters as we go, happy to play guide, though I keep trying to catch her in between. Take a photo outside NYU and notice the bags under her eyes, bruise-blue.
‘Are you sure you’re alright, pet?’
‘We can just head back home?’
‘Maybe get you a massage – take your mind off-’
‘Mum, would you stop!’ She finally snaps in the middle of Prince Street. ‘I’m grand!’ A mist hawing up from a subway grill, mocking our little drama with its atmospheric puff.
‘Pet now, you don’t need to pretend-’
‘I’m not! Really – it’s just… just a bit of an obstacle, that’s all.’ The sinews in her neck pull taut like an instrument. ‘So we just need to figure out a way of dealing with it, OK?’ One I need to remember how to play.
Later, in her power shower, I can feel the city coursing off me in rivers, meandering black and forming oxbow lakes. Soap on a guilty belly and another flicker for my little lad.
‘Now isn’t this gorgeous,’ I coo, later again. ‘Gorgeous altogether.’
We are sat in the smarmy Italian place she knows I love. Candles in wine bottles, the wax-drips thin like bones.
She asks the leery waiter for carafe of white. I think she shouldn’t but stop myself from saying.
‘So I hear Geraldine’s got the flu,’ she begins.
‘Choked,’ I say. ‘Flat on her back.’
‘Wow. Must be driving her cracked.’ She gives a bold little smile which I match, a mixture of pleasure and guilt.
But she’s right – my eldest is certainly the upright type. Upright uptight three kids working mum accounting firm just like my Fintan yes, all our family, counting things up.
‘Counting down to the holliers.’
Three whole months of primary school freedom.
‘She keeps saying she and Martin will come visit.’
‘Ach, but what’d they do with the twins?’
‘Sure bring them too!’
My middle child only needed the one pregnancy before she’d had her fill. Two gorgeous boys, soft for me God love them, though to think of them running amok in that Upper East Side pristinery.
‘Can’t you imagine Joey’s eyes out on stems?’ I don’t mean to say it aloud but I do. Shove in a meaty olive to shut me up but she has heard, her features twitching anger versus hurt.
‘He’s actually great with kids, Mum.’ She opts for the wounded approach instead.
I swallow and go again. ‘I’ve no doubt of that, pet-’
‘You should see him with his brother’s lot. And Linda said he was always a darling with babies, even when he was small.’
This time though, it is my turn to bristle. Linda, the mother-in-law. Elegance and pearls with a yoga-slapped body. I haven’t seen her since the wedding, bloody hundreds of them over to the West of Ireland squawking ancestors and heritage and big brutish smiles, colonising the place until it felt more like their home turf than ours.
When I look up though, the bride has lost her blush.
‘Oh, Mum, I’m sorry…’
Tears streaming thick over the jut of those cheekbones, oxbow lakes along the jaw and down.
‘Oh my pet-’
‘No no, I’m fine, I just-’
But I am up from my chair and round to her, squat on hunkers that might never get up.
The slump with which she gives herself to me is colossal. Collapsing on top so I might actually keel back and kick knickers in the air but I do not care, because I have her, her skin and her bones, the journey worth this alone.
‘Let it out, pet, just let it out.’
I can feel the other customers watching now, an upset to their dining schedule. But I only clutch, tighter tighter, think I must seize the opportunity to tell her what I have wanted for so long – to tell her to come back. Home. Lovely and all this New York state of mind, but time to be where you belong, only of course, that would make me a bad mother. Badder still when she first told me they were having trouble and I noticed a pang of something almost like relief, her roots not quite yet planted in American soil, sucking nutrients and minerals and genetically modified-
‘Excuse me, ladies, your ragu?’
Róisín bolts up, jack-in-the-box. She smudges her face back to a smile.
‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘Thank you so much.’ Though for the life of me I cannot tell if she’s talking to me or the waiter as he hands over the plates, grinding pepper from a mill that is almost as high as my crotch.
Day in Cycle: 3
Emotional Fertility: High
I wake to the sound of panting. A low knock on the door.
‘Mum? Mum are you awake?’
She sashays inside, this lycra being. Guzzles a bottle of mineral water with such force that her Adam’s apple undulates against the skin until it might break through and land in a lump on the floor. Keep it in a jar with her baby teeth.
‘How was the gym?’ I ask, clumsy up from my grog.
She has always been my skinniest, my baby, though I swear there is even less of her this morning. Exercise will help, says the doctor, with the stress if nothing else, but still, there’s such thing as too far. And she is different from my other two in that regard, both of them sinking south – even Geraldine, despite her perfectionism. But of course, Ró has always been the odd one out, a good eight years free of the older pair’s wars – warbles and claws that decimated the place while she just toddled on with herself, the sweetheart who everyone turned to. Even Fintan in his own, quiet way.
Of course, there were accusations that came with it too. Favouritism. So much easier on the youngest. But she was an easier type of lass and anyway, maybe it was just easier by then to know how to love. Second nature, they say, but some habits take longer to come.
‘Right well I’ll get cleaned up and then we’ll get going, OK? Sun’s splitting the stones out there.’
I smile at her, at the Irishism, music to half-woken ears. I roll myself over and listen to the roar of the shower. I look up at the fertility chart, back on track, only then why is there still a niggle in me that hasn’t quite washed away? The tang of something I must have seen in my sleep?
We trawl around Macy’s with my handwritten list. Bargains for home – sure, the whole country could do with a polo-shirt deal. Still her form is on the up, fussing me into changing rooms with giggles and poses, our way and only ours. Photos on phones to remember. And I am almost up with her, arms linked in tight so the shadow cannot fit, but then she gets a text and I feel it reaching in.
‘What’s wrong?’ My chest is quick with worst scenarios. A test result back already? A plane out of the sky and a businessman down?
‘It’s work,’ she replies. ‘They need… No it’s totally my fault, I forgot to show them where…’
She steps away to make a phone call while I hover round the rails, suddenly thongs and suspenders because apparently sex is everywhere this weekend.
But it is no use.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she frowns. ‘I’ll have to pop by the office – it should only take me a second, I can just meet you back-’
‘I’ll come,’ I say.
‘No it’s grand. Sure I haven’t been to the Gallery in ages.’
She eyes me then, as if this might be some kind of trick. Granted, no real interest in the Art – always a wonder where the passion came from – but eventually she agrees and we are gone, down into the city’s intestines and then up again somewhere shinier.
‘I’ll just nip up to the office,’ she says. ‘You have a look around. I’ll be twenty minutes, half an hour max.’
She does ‘loans and acquisitions’ for them here. My little joke to the neighbours – that I’m just ‘loaning’ her to America. Their laughs always kind though we can all spot the strand of doubt.
Once she’s gone I think of beelining for the café, but instead I force myself to give it a minute. A couple of sketches to begin with, landscapes I think, though really I haven’t an iota.
The next room is sculptures. Chairs and pulleys that appear more like implements of torture so I scurry on, photography now, at least a bit of reality I should be able to manage. And it is in amidst the dusty alleyways and the telephone lines umbilicalled between buildings that I spot her, the girl with the broken arm. The radius has been snapped in an obvious jag, though her eyes don’t tremble a bit. I look at her for a moment, broken. I move on.
But the next one is her again. A pretty thing, blonde and blue, only this time her arm is slung and it is her jaw that draws you, maimed on one side, mutated like half of someone else’s face. I feel myself falter, squeamish at the best of times, but this? And soon there are more, again and again, her wrist yanked out of place like a rag-doll limp, ligaments floppy and then a baby finger mangled and unnatural, making my nausea come, my own fingers flinching with an echoing pain but also a lick of frustration too, because why does she keep staring every time? No wince or plea or care for her poor body tattered to smithereens?
‘She did it for twelve months.’ Róisín’s voice is suddenly by me, sending me crossways. ‘Sorry I didn’t mean… But yea, one bone every month. Snapped it herself and then took a self-portrait. To symbolise the broken selves we all are.’
Spiel or no spiel my rage is away now. This jumped up hippie, sure what could she know of us all? Of me and my girls and my Fintan, God rest him, and her without an ounce of respect for the skeleton God gave her?
‘Mum, are you alright?’
The flesh and blood and tissues and heart that pumps and pumps.
‘Mum? Hello? Shall we go?’
I turn to her and look. A smile into the lens.
‘Come on you goose,’ it says. ‘Let’s head back. These shoes have me in bits,’ taking my arm and leading me out like I am old and need a guide. But even long after the glass doors have closed I can still feel her – all twelve of her – staring as I go.
Even at dinner, I cannot fully swallow.
She has taken me for steak. Big juicy, blood-rinsed, American steaks. ‘The two mad cows that we are,’ she jokes, but in my head the laughter comes more like a whimper.
‘Mum, are you OK?’ It is her turn now for concern. ‘Jetlagged?’ The old excuse so we make it an early one, back to the flat and the room and the calendar, her boiling the kettle while I sit on the bed holding my skull in my hands.
We never needed any schedule, Fintan and I. Pregnant on our wedding night – lucky first time. And second. And then a wait ‘til the third but even as the dote came screaming fresh I knew he’d want one more try – a final go for a lad. So we went straight away. Irish twins, they say – not even the full year between – only it was a difficult pregnancy, flat on my back and him run ragged, juggling the girls and understanding for the first time what parent really meant.
And then he arrived, the beautiful crathúr. So perfect he didn’t even move.
For once Fintan was actually there to see it – this time his Volvo hadn’t broken down. Only then the rest of him did, the both of us, though I showed it the loudest. Made him take Geraldine and Eimear off to my Mam’s but Ró had just started to teethe so she stayed.
And she cried. Jesus. Relentless with it, tearing me to ribbons. Already fragile as glass until one day I just cracked, right down the middle of me.
I hear her voice in the next room now. A teenage giggle to Joey calling from far far away.
When the gang returned a week later I told them she had banged it off the table. Another week and it was almost healed. But the guilt had me crippled, the favourite yes but also a lifetime of compensation, of never knowing how much damage I had really done.
My head is all fists now. I stand up. I wobble to the bathroom and burrow for her tablets, in behind the mirror and the portrait I don’t want to see. The little jars are lined in a row, vitamins and supplements and American pills to pump American happiness, but I only need a Paracetamol, the simplest thing, so I reach high to the shelf above the mirror, bottles and sprays and a box I almost touch.
They rain down around me, the white sticks. The shoebox lands on the floor.
‘Mum?’ my daughter calls from the kitchen. ‘Are you OK?’ My daughter who wants to have a baby. My daughter who keeps all her used pregnancy tests in a box above her bathroom cabinet.
I pick one up from the sink where it has fallen. It is lighter than I expected. I raise it to my nose and breathe in. I close my eyes.
Day in Cycle: 4
Emotional Fertility: Low/Medium
The flashes of cameras behind us must look like halos. Divine Intervention.
Tourists ooh and ah by the Bag Security Check while the faithful in the rows ahead try to hear only God, the Gospel according to Mark. Mary and Martha and Róisín and me in St. Pat’s Cathedral for the feast of ‘Farewell Sunday’.
We always come on my final morning. Thanksgiving and attritions for the visit itself and for those who couldn’t make it. And it’s funny, because I rarely bother back home anymore, the disintegration of the old ways and all that, but here it goes without saying, the most sacred of rituals, and on this morning of all.
My knees creak stiff on the fold-down pew. I think of Our Virgin at the foot the cross, Divine Immaculation. I thrust myself onto God. Tell Him to do His worst.
But the effect isn’t wasted on me entirely, brighter again as we re-enter the day, determined to savour what is left.
‘Central Park?’ she asks.
‘Rollerink or carousel?’
‘Throw in the pond, sure, and we’ll call it a triathlon.’
And so the ascension goes, up to the oasis of green, a ‘haven’ they say though I think that’s a farce since it’s just as manic here, the park that never sleeps.
She is chatty herself, telling me about some public art yoke they want to stick up, a whack of modern to offend the green. And I try to stay with her – really I do – only a matter of hours left and my sins shoved aside as best as I can, but the distractions come from every direction. Mammies and babbies and waddles that fall and land on bum bums. Feed the ducks! Feed the ducks! And me and my three up to Marley Park a million years ago, hands linked together like a daisy chain and for each one of them I yank she loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me-
My ankle gives way first and then the whole of me. I trip, headlong over the kerb. And then I hear it, the crack of bone on bench.
The blood is warm on my cheek, though I cannot see it, only hear her shrieks and then the strangers’ too – probably the tourists again, taking photographs – add them to the artist’s collection. I wait a minute, take an inventory of my limbs. The dent on my cheek. My baby toe, though they say we break them all the time.
I try to sit up before too many spins lie me back down again. I stare up at the sun, the glare of it syrupping the trees, the sky this city sometimes forgets to show.
Hours later, my body and me sit naked in her tub. The smush of flab on porcelain looks like chewing gum on a desk, like it might dry and harden and have to be picked off out of the grain.
She squeezes a sponge, her face puckered in concentration. She moves it towards me. ‘May I?’
I nod. So she mays. My right shoulder first and then my left, easing the wrinkles down like they might just fall away and leave a smoother, better body. She goes calm and methodical with the work, grazing the side of my breast and you ate from that, I want to say, I fed you then and God knows I would feed you now. Next she moves to my face, the cheek mustering up its purple hues. Christ, I’ll be a fine sight on the plane home tonight – battered by New York entirely. My skull though, doesn’t complain, leaning in to the give of the sponge, the plush, porous fist of her love.
‘You know, pet,’ I say then. ‘You will make a wonderful-’
‘But you will, pet. Very soon now, I’m sure of-’
‘I know,’ a certainty and a patience that has me swelled. Though the memory is still quick to surface. And maybe now is the time to finally put it right. ‘Pet,’ I say, before I can think again. A dizz on me like I’m back on the kerb. ‘Pet, I wanted to say how sorry-’
‘Get you out of there now before you turn into a prune and I’ll put the kettle on – can’t have you leaving without one last mug of tea, eh?’ the only question left between us.
Day in Cycle: 5
Chance of Love: High
My left leg is a numb thing. Silly not to bother with the socks this time.
We land right on schedule. The sky still has bags under it, though the runway buzzes like any other hour.
I wait for my case. One of the girls will have come to meet me, either of them, greedy with their questions:
How’s she looking?
Joey gorgeous as ever?
A nonchalance that can’t quite smother the jealousy.
And what in shite happened your face?
When I was only a girl myself my mother used to take me to Dublin Airport. The ultimate treat, to watch the planes go and come. A hot chocolate that formed a skin as I pressed myself to the glass and wondered at these great big birds from beyond, while she sat there and let a sheen settle on her eyes, thoughts of separation welling far too early.
My case shows up. A stranger helps me lug it onto the trolley. I knot my scarf a touch tighter and head for the exit, wondering if I need the loo.
Out the other side are camera flashes, the reunions captured for all time. A placard with a name it doesn’t know. But even as I shamble forth I can see only her, welcoming him back, smearing him with lips and tearing him to the bed she hasn’t even had the chance to change, so there will still be some hint of me there as they make their love – just some stain of skin or some flake of sweat – but enough all the same so that if the message does finally arrive with the good news my body will feel its own, tiny credit in the miracle. An atonement of the flesh after all.
Ruth Gilligan is an Irish novelist and journalist now living in the UK, where she works as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. She has published four novels to date, and was the youngest person ever to reach number one on the Irish bestsellers’ list. Her most recent book, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, was inspired by the unknown story of the Jewish community in Ireland. It was published by Atlantic Books (UK/Ireland), Tin House (US) and Penn (Israel). Ruth holds degrees from Cambridge, Yale, UEA and Exeter, and contributes regular literary reviews to the Times Literary Supplement, LA Review of Books, Guardian and Irish Independent.