An excerpt from my short story “The Jailbird”, from my debut short story collection The Scattering.
That night I arrived home to find Ma had bolted the door. I’d had a few jars with Martha in town and had walked her back on the balmy night to Josie’s, her aunt’s place. (In the pub, we’d bumped into a few old faces, including Noel, who ran his father’s butchers on High Street. He’d drummed with us for a while. Everyone was glad to see us. In fact, the whole evening had been rather wonderful. And I was closer to feeling like a god this first night with Martha than I’d felt in a long time.)
‘Open the door, Ma,’ I shouted up at the window. No sound. Then the curtains were wrenched back and I could see her staring down at me, glasses on, chocolate-brown hairnet pinned to her head, no doubt to protect for Coco Conway those grey-golden Meryl Streep-ish locks of hers.
‘Come on, Ma. Open the door,’ I shouted. I could hear her footsteps then, heavy on the stairs, and eventually she unlocked the door making a big ceremonious deal out of the whole lot – the bolts, the mortice lock – and opened it, slightly, with the chain still on, and looked straight at me, her own and only living son:
‘Who is it?’ she said.
‘Jesus fuck, you know it’s me, Ma! You just looked down at me from the window.’ And then this long, black shotgun was being pointed at me, and I screamed. As soon as she pulled back I burst clean through the door, breaking the chain. When I stumbled in, Ma was up against the stairs, pointing the yoke straight at me. I honestly thought she would fire. I could see something dark and cruel in her. In all the years we’d been cooped up in this house together (which was bad enough after Eugene and worse after my father died) I’d never directly encountered this look but I had felt it. In every sarcastic comment, in the way she’d no tenderness for me, not at any time nor in any situation, in how she would mock the music I listened to and denounce my fox-feeding to the worst animal-haters that would come into the shop. Now, in the half-dark of the room, I saw her for real, sort of maskless. I saw with alcohol-derived clarity that there was something caught, trapped between us, that was almost creaturish, like an albatross – weighed down and entangled in net: it was blame. I fucking knew it, I said to myself, as she stood there in her long white nightdress that was shamefully flimsy and bare feet with the rough-skinned toes all painted up in a brash persimmon-coloured nail varnish, her eyes ablaze and narrow like a snake’s, or a fox about to pounce on a rat. She blamed me for Eugene. (I had always the sense that because I was in a band she thought it must have been me who’d dragged Eugene into the scene he was in. But he was well capable of finding his own trouble.)
‘You were out with that one,’ she said.
‘Who’s that one?’
‘That hussy. The Cassidy one.’
‘Don’t talk about her like that,’ I said, quite viciously, near enough forgetting about the gun, though, like I said, I’d had a few jars. I pulled back then, just to be on the safe side. ‘Put. The gun. Down. Ma. For fuck’s sake.’
‘She was never any good.’
I let out a big sigh, went to the door, saying I’d sleep in the barn as I couldn’t stand to listen to her any more, nor be in the same house with someone pointing a gun at me.
‘Come back, Michael,’ she said, seeing me go to leave. When I stopped, she went to the cupboard under the stairs, lodged the gun inside, covered it with a few coats and closed the door.
‘Pretty bloody handy with that gun aren’t you, Ma?’
‘Never know what scum’d be calling these nights,’ she said. ‘And besides, wouldn’t a mother need a gun with a son like you comes in stocious drunk with the big foul breath on him?’ Well, I couldn’t resist. It was like those articles I’d read in the shop when I was bored, which was most days, about people in northern England or southern America who supposedly had ‘out of body experiences.’. That’s what it felt like as I lunged at my own mother and let out an enormous stinky breath directly into her face. She screwed up her eyes and mouth with the repugnancy of it, turned away.
‘Oh, this is what she’s done to you. What she’s always done to you. Makes you belligerent. That’s what it is.’
‘It’s not belligerence! It’s fucking freedom. That’s what she gives me, Ma. Freedom to be myself. Li-ber-ty!’
‘Liberty!’ Ma said, mockingly, and stood there shaking her head, a crafty smile spreading across her face. I was annoyed that she could come so quickly back from the disgusting thing I’d just done to her. I think I would have halted in my tracks, thrown myself down at her feet, begging her forgiveness had she, say, started to cry. But no, she’d gotten a taste for a row and was going to stand her ground, and she did, and she looked just like she did in the poster on the wall by the shop door, and it was then I realised she fucking loved it, the drama, the operatic proportions of things, the rows between us.
‘Come on, Ma, let’s go to bed,’ I said, afraid for the thing to get out of hand and all too aware that both of us had easy access to a gun.
‘I’ve heard a few things about Martha Cassidy and her fabulous singing career. Oh, I’ve heard plenty.’
‘Like what have you heard? And from whom? The biddies round this way? They’d make muck of a saint,’ I said.
‘It wasn’t a biddy who told me,’ Ma said.
‘Who told you?’
‘Never you fucking mind who told me.’
‘Don’t swear, Ma, it doesn’t suit you. Told you what?’
‘Just how your precious Martha Cassidy’s been making a living over there, and it’s not by singing. It’s by lying on her back, best way she knows how.’ I looked at my mother, at her mouth all foamy and thin and twisted, and all the horrific stories I would read in the newspapers each day came suddenly into my mind, instantly metamorphosed as stories with me and Ma in the starring roles: Son bludgeons own mother to death in row; ‘Meryl Streep’ mowed down in Castlemoyne; Son of woman-who-ruined-his-