Nuala O’Connor: Winner of the Writing.ie Irish Short Story of the Year Award 2022

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Nuala O'Connor

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Nuala O’Connor is the winner of the 2022 Writing.ie Irish Short Story of the Year Award for This Small Giddy Life, first published in A Little Unsteadily Into Light (New Island).

On being presented with the Award, Nuala commented:

‘I’m genuinely delighted to have won with this story, in particular, as I drew from my mother’s experience of dementia for it. I love the challenge of short fiction, the choosing of the detail, the choosing, too, of those active absences a story needs. I want all readers to embrace short stories they way novels are embraced, to come at them knowing they require a little effort but they deliver a special ‘hit’ that’s unique and satisfying.’

You can read Nuala’s powerful story below.

Nuala O'Connor IBA

This Small Giddy Life by Nuala O’Connor

‘Is that plastic?’ Imy taps a fingernail against the urn. ‘Trust Mam to end up in a shitty pot.’

‘It’s brass. Painted.’ I frown and rub my hand over the cold surface. ‘That’s what I ordered, anyway.’

The urn sits on my kitchen counter, the lid wedged shut; I take a knife from the block and prise it open. We peer in at the ashes.

‘Wormy poo,’ Imy says. ‘Bird plop.’

‘Cremains,’ I say, and we both laugh, the same stupid, in-unison snorts we’ve done all our lives. I close the urn and it sits there, horribly present and, somehow, vital.

‘What’ll we do with her?’ Imy asks.

‘Same thing we always did with Mam, I suppose. Put up with her.’ I sigh and push away tears with my fist. ‘The last thing she got from me was blame, Imy.’

My sister shrugs. ‘It doesn’t matter, Sharon; she was beyond understanding, you said it yourself.’ She pokes at the urn with the knife until I take it from her. ‘What sort of blaming was it?’ she asks.

I flick my hands through my hair and stare at the table instead of Imy. ‘I said, “I’ve no clue how to fit into my own life, and it’s your fucking fault, Mam.” Do you think she heard? Understood?’

‘She was hopped up on morphine, didn’t even know where she was. Or who she was.’

I sigh. ‘Well, none of us knew that.’

*

We move to a place where backstory is not allowed; over and again we move to this place. People are coldly civil towards my mother; she draws that out of them. Men like her well enough, but women are often hostile. Mam makes no pretence at being widowed, or still married to whomever, and she gets disapproval in return for her honesty, her lack of cover-up. God knows she hides everything else, but no one likes a woman alone in these places, especially one with two daughters. A handsome woman who might do harm to husbands; a woman who talks a lot, who asks questions, and reveals herself too soon. A woman with obvious appetites.

We move constantly because Mam is hunting down some elsewhere that will fit her and not one of these places is ever right. Up and down Ireland we drive, back and across: she needs to be near the sea; she needs the bustle of a town; she needs a friendly village; she needs the thrum of a big city; she needs a huge old house in the middle of a field, with only sheep for company. Nowhere works.

‘There’s something awful mean-spirited about Galway,’ Mam says, after five months in Connemara.

Sligo is unmercifully wet. Dublin frenetic and grey.

Villages are too native and small towns have no get-up- and-go.

On we travel.

In each new place, in the early days of our arrival, we sit in pubs while Mam cajoles information from landlords and locals. ‘Would there be a little job going in here, by any chance?’ she’ll say, offering a lipsticked grin.

The barmen lean down, all silly smirks and bonhomie. ‘Well, there just might be for a lassie like yourself. What’s this you said your name was?’

‘Margaret.’ Wreaths of smiles. ‘But my friends call me Meg.’

Mam asks barmen, too, about flats and houses, always determined to find something better than whatever shithole we’ve landed in ‘for the time being’. But the time being is the only time our mother knows; there is no past, there is no planned-for future, those are inconveniences. In pub lounges all over the island, my sister and I sit at low tables, drinking cordial from glasses Laliqued with Tayto grease, while Mam perches at the bar, preens and flirt-chatters, and sips on a small stout, sweetened with blackcurrant.

Here we are in Ummoon, County Mayo. There we are in Portarlington, County Laois. Now we meet ourselves at the crossroads at Maam, blowing away from Clifden town as fast as we blew in. Meg driving and singing ‘She’ll be comin’ ’round the mountain when she comes’, or gripping the steering wheel in grim silence, which is worse. We don’t know where we’re from, Imy and I, or where we’ll end up, and we don’t dare ask our mother.

*

‘You can get necklaces made with the cremains, you know,’ I tell Imy. ‘There’s a website. They put the ashes into glass pendants. It looks like swirly sand.’ I swizzle my finger in a circle.

Imy snorts. ‘You want me to have Mam permanently around my neck? No fucking thanks, Sharon. Jesus, the things you come up with.’

‘What? I thought it’d be nice. A bit of Meg to take back to Spain with you.’

‘Nice! But why would you want to bother? The woman drove you mad.’

I frown. ‘Not always, Imy. Her illness changed her; she wasn’t as spiky as before.’ I feel let down. ‘And she was still our mother.’

*

I first notice a waywardness in Mam when she’s turning sixty; she seems more harum-scarum than ever, yet more contained too. It’s just small forgettings at first, and muddles about objects, about where exactly she lives.

She’ll ask, ‘Where’s this I am now?’

‘Galway,’ I say. ‘Rahoon. Remember? This is your flat.’ ‘Galway? Oh!’ she replies, as if it’s a curiosity to her.

She forgets, too, to keep her place clean, and she no longer asks anything about me: my daily doings, my job, my love life. These lapses begin to link together until I see something definite in her: a solid absence. It’s as if she operates as two people: the reasonably together woman who knows me and acts like Mam, and the vague, incurious woman who appears when knowledge and truth are needed.

There’s no sixtieth party planned for her – we’ve never gone in for celebrations – but Mam rings me the day before her birthday and demands that I come immediately to Rahoon, and I can tell she’s agitated because she’s lisping slightly and snapping out her words.

I grip my phone. ‘What’s wrong, Mam?’

‘Just come over here, Sharon,’ she barks, ‘can’t you do that for me?’

Life-things have kept me away from Mam’s for a week and, when I let myself in, I’m stormed by a fruit-meat stink. Mam, though unruly in herself, has always preferred cleanliness. The bowl on the kitchen table – islanded in a sea of breadcrumbs– is packed with mildew-bloomy mandarins, and the draining board holds three opened tins of Whiskas, though my mother doesn’t own a cat.

‘The smell in here, Mam! Let me tidy up.’ I tip the oranges into the bin.

She stalks up to me. ‘That bitch at the bank won’t let me have my money.’ She’s plucking at her hair with her fingers – a recent tic – her whole face rucked to a frown. ‘I wanted a couple of grand for the party and that bitch says I can’t have it. My own bloody money!’

I pull her hands gently away from her hair. ‘What party, Mam?’

‘My sixtieth, Sharon! For fuck’s sake, what’s wrong with you?’

‘Oh. You never said you wanted a shindig. That’s news to me.’

She squints at me as if I’m the worst kind of fool. ‘It’s all arranged.’

‘But, Mam, you hate arranging things.’

‘I do not. I booked the function room at the Spinnaker; I ordered a cake from O’Connor’s,’ she says.

‘How?’

‘I rang them.’ Mam pauses. ‘I went around there. To them. I walked to the bakery.’ Her look to me is timid now, eye- slidey. ‘And to the Spinnaker.’

I frown. ‘And you’re saying you walked all the way down to Salthill to book a function room?’ She hardly ever leaves her flat. ‘Are you sure about all this?’

Mam stalls. ‘Imy organised it, actually,’ she says, jutting her chin. ‘I just need to pay now.’

‘OK, but Imy’s in Spain, so I don’t see how–’

She holds her fingers to her temples. ‘Stop, Sharon, stop! I need that money from the bank; you go there and talk to that wagon at the counter. The cheek of her! Everyone’s coming to this party. Your father. Everyone.’

‘My father?’

*

Mam lasts twenty-one months in Ennis, a long stint for us. The convent school accepts Imy and me, after a little histrionic wrangling with a sceptical nun.

‘I’m a widow, Sister,’ Mam says, squishing out a few tears.

The nun offers a brisk smile and nod, and we’re in. Unlike other schools, I settle at the Mercy and make a friend called Emer, a fellow outcast. We bond because I’m a fatherless blow-in, and Emer’s being raised by her grandparents, though her parents still live in the town. We walk home together after school and, in her company, I quit biting my nails to stumps, and sucking on my hair-ends. Emer means I can avoid home, avoid my mother and her tantrums.

Emer calls herself an ornithologist and, on our walks, she teaches me about bird habitats and behaviours, field-marks and feathers. We peer into bushes and treetops; we stake out fields and the riverbank.

‘Always watch well, Sharon,’ Emer instructs. ‘Does the bird’s tail fan? Does it wag?’ She pats her chest. ‘And look at the underbelly markings too. You need to be observant.’

We stalk every tree and bramble in Ennis.

‘Do you want to see my collection of feathers?’ Emer asks one day.

It’s my first invitation to another girl’s house and I feel sick with anticipation. Emer’s grandparents are not the ancients I was expecting; they don’t look much older than Mam. Emer’s already whispered to me that her mother was fourteen having her – our age – and we’ve giggled and grimaced over the idea of letting a boy put his smelly thing inside our legs.

Her granny waves to us when we flit through the kitchen, to get to Emer’s bedroom. There’s a fireplace in the room and all along the mantelpiece are empty stout bottles, stuffed with feathers. I trail my fingers over the tops.

‘Beautiful,’ I say. ‘They look like flames. Like flowers.’

‘I really want to find kingfisher feathers; they’re the prettiest of all the Irish birds. I’d love to see one – they fizz through the air.’ She dive-zooms her hand.

‘I’d love that too,’ I say.

‘Kingfishers foretell death,’ Emer tells me, and I nod solemnly, as if this is something I already know.

‘Have your tea here, Sharon. I’ll get Granny to ring your mammy.’

Tea in Emer’s house is egg sandwiches and cake, taken quietly around the kitchen table, on blue-striped plates. In our flat, it’s foraged baked beans and toast, or whatever Imy and I can put together, while Mam works. Emer’s granny and grandad butter slices of barmbrack and eat them without speaking. Nobody argues or accuses, shouts or rages, laughs or brings news, and I can barely swallow with the silence that echoes around my ears. ‘I’ll drive you home, Sharon,’ Emer’s grandad says, when we’re finished.

I sit behind him in his car, my stomach trouncing with nerves, not knowing whether to speak. Do the Boyles ever talk? Do they fight? How do they know what each other thinks?

Emer’s grandad insists on coming up to our flat above the butcher’s shop, with its linger of lard and blood in the stairwell.

‘I’m home,’ I call, and Mam comes out to the corridor.

She taps her hand across her hair. ‘Oh, Mr Boyle. Come in, come in.’

He follows her into the living-room, and I go to my bedroom, leaving the door ajar so I can spy. They talk for a minute about school, and Emer and me, then Mr Boyle steps close to Mam.

‘If you ever need anything, Meg, just ask,’ he says, ‘anything now. I know a woman alone must face hardships.’ His tongue pokes out like corned beef and he half-smiles. ‘Anything you need at all.’ He puts his hand on Mam’s shoulder, then slides it down and squeezes her breast.

Mam jumps backwards. ‘Well that I don’t need,’ she hisses. Emer’s grandad leaps, grabs his hat, and runs for the door. Though my cheeks are blazing, I muster nonchalance and come into the living-room. ‘Is he gone?’

‘Gone and good riddance, the old git,’ Mam says. She looks angry, but she bursts out laughing and holds out her arms to me, and I run into them. She speaks into my hair, ‘Don’t let men undermine you, Sharon. Ever. Don’t let them use and abuse you. Ever ever. Will you promise me that?’

I look up into her face. ‘I promise, Mam.’

*

I hang birdfeeders like socks on a clothesline in Mam’s yard. She sits inside at the window – a child new to television – following, in wonder, the finches and robins that plunder the nuts and seeds. I put a bird-spotting book on the windowsill beside her.

‘I don’t need a guide, the names are in here,’ she says, tapping her forehead.

‘Are they now?’ I murmur.

Names and memories, places and history have flown from her head, with no will to return, it seems. The most ordinary things are alien to her now, as if they come as news. Vacancy possesses her, and I often find her stock-still and glassy-eyed, as if she has forgotten entirely who or where she is, and none of it matters, anyway. Where does her mind flee to in those arrested moments? What’s behind the blank stare? I feel tender towards her when I notice she’s gone, everything of who she once was slipped off into some other ether. All her travelling come to a dead stop.

*

Emer and I tramp through fields to the River Fergus and sit on the bank. A mallard streaks up and down in the water and we enjoy his emerald-headed majesty.

‘Ducks are dabblers,’ Emer says.

‘Dabblers,’ I repeat. She shifts her gaze and points to the sky; obediently, I look up. ‘What is it?’ I ask.

‘Sparrowhawk.’

‘Yellow eyes, rounded wings,’ I offer. ‘A sprinter.’

‘Very good, Sharon.’ I glimmer inwardly and we watch the sky until the hawk disappears. She shifts on the grass beside me. ‘I saw you in town the other day.’

‘Oh? I would’ve said hello if I saw you.’

‘Myself and Granny were in a café, and I looked out, and there you were – you, your sister, and your mam.’ She pinches my knee. ‘She’s like a film star, your mammy, you never said.’

I wince. ‘Sure, why would I say that? She’s just Mam.’ I feel embarrassed. ‘Imy calls her Mad Meg.’ I snigger and Emer swings her head to glare at me. ‘What?’ I say.

‘I’d smother my gran if it meant I could live with my mammy, that’s the God’s honest truth, Sharon. You don’t know how lucky you are.’ I nod solemnly and, when I see that she’s crying, I squeeze her hand because I don’t know what to say. ‘My mam’s gorgeous as well,’ Emer says. ‘She really is. But Granny always says “pretty women breed chaos”. Do you think that’s true?’

My cheeks flare and bars of iron run across my shoulders. I don’t like Emer for saying this, but maybe that means it’s the truth. Chaos. Pretty women. Is Mam chaotic? A bit, yes, I suppose, she can never settle, and she gets ragey about tiny things. Is she pretty? Certainly. Her dark hair makes porcelain of her skin, and she wears clothes like a shop mannequin, though they’re all from charity shops. Chaos? Is it chaotic that Mam lashes out at us sometimes, when she’s jarred? I can brazen up to her, so none of the slaps hurt; I puff out my cheeks when she goes at my face. Imy does the same. Mam’s always sorry after, and she’ll sleep in one of our beds, snotting and sobbing into our hair, saying, ‘Never again, my little darling, never again.’ But there’s always an again.

I toss my head to loosen my thoughts. I glance at Emer and sniff deep. There’s a dirty copper smell to the air and it sits heavily above us. I jump up.

‘It’s going to lash rain. I have to go,’ I say, and I start to run.

I need to get as far away as I can from Emer and her remarks and her easy tears and her weird family and her bloody stupid birds.

*

I ring Imy from Mam’s flat.

‘You’re there again?’ Imy says, a small bit incredulous.

‘I have to be. She forgets to eat. I need to make sure there’s food inside her.’

‘Like she always did for us?’ Imy sniffs, and her stock of disgruntlements and grudges seems to make the line vibrate.

‘Do you want a word with her?’ I ask.

‘Will she even remember what I say? Nah, I won’t bother.’

I envy my sister her ability to pack my mother into such a pragmatic, practical space as this, Mam not even worth a few moments of chat. ‘OK,’ I say, ‘all right.’ But I’m disappointed

in Imy, in her lack of care for our mother. For me.

As time goes on, Mam forgets to change from her nightdress into clothes, so I start to visit daily to pull her into trousers and jumpers. She forgets to bathe, too, so I manoeuvre her into the bath and wash her.

‘I’m like a baby,’ she says, poking at suds and smiling benignly, while I gently sponge her skin.

And, despite my ministrations, when I arrive at Mam’s  door each day, she is always surprised to see me.

‘Oh, Sharon,’ she says today, as if I haven’t been in the longest time. ‘Is Imy with you?’

‘Nope,’ I say, ‘she’s still living in Spain, Mam. In Bilbao.’ ‘Huh, Spain. Imagine. Viva España.’

I giggle. ‘Viva España for sure, Mam.’

‘I’ve never liked travelling myself. All that running about,’ she says, ‘it’d exhaust you.’

‘Is that right?’

I have learned not to contradict her. She often says things like this with absolute certainty though, sometimes, her pronouncements arrive with a doubtful, far-off look, as   if she’s trying to net the veracity of her words, but failing to catch anything. Other times, disconnected comments emerge, particles plucked from the silt of memories.

‘Your father had womanly hands,’ she says now, her tone dreamy, as she stares out the window.

I’m emptying the bin and I stand with the bag noosed in my hand, gripping it tighter. I say, airily, ‘So, what was he like, this father of mine?’ But she’s already gone, ascended back into the cloud-place she occupies most of the time.

I see a fresh note taped to the press, to add to my more mundane ones for identifying appliance plugs and the contents of drawers:

‘DO NOT FEED CAT. NOT MY CAT. (KILLS BIRDS).’

I smile, impressed by her lucidity, her directness. I turn to look at her trailing one finger across the windowpane, following the birds’ movements from bath to feeder to fence. There is awe and joy in her face, and it strikes me she is becalmed, no more the rushing hawk of her younger years. Stillness suits her, makes her cheerier, a thing none of us would ever have believed.

‘It’d be lovely to be able to fly, wouldn’t it?’ Mam says, lifting her face to me and smiling. She raises her arms like wings. ‘Freedom!’ she says, laughing.

*

I let myself into our flat above the Ennis butcher. I’m soaked from my run through the thunder shower, and I can hear Imy and Mam arguing. I’d like to get to the bedroom without them seeing me; I want to think more about what Emer has said about chaotic women. I push the living-room door softly, but Mam spots me.

‘You’re not taking us out of here,’ Imy is saying. ‘I’ll refuse to go. Sharon will too.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ Mam says. ‘Yeah, we will. I’ll see to it,’ Imy barks. ‘Do that so.’

Their familiar sparring wearies me.

‘I’ll get the authorities involved,’ Imy says. ‘Sister Paschal at the convent. All the nuns.’

‘You’ll do no such thing,’ Mam says quietly, and her calm makes Imy boil.

‘The inspector will stop you,’ my sister shouts. ‘It’s illegal to be pulling children in and out of a million schools.’

Mam tuts and crosses her arms, as if waiting for Imy to say something useful.

‘Is it true, Mam?’ I ask, though I already know. ‘Are we moving again?’

‘Say goodbye to Beaky and her feathered friends,’ Imy snaps. ‘Her name’s Emer,’ I say.

‘Who gives a shite, Sharon? It’s over, we’re gone. Mad Meg has decided County Clare’s not for her.’ She flicks her hand at Mam. ‘Where to now, Amelia Earhart? What’s the next great adventure?’

‘Mam, do we have to leave? Really?’ I ask. My gut starts up its ritual churn; I suck the ends of my hair. My mother has her determination face on, and I know we’ll be in the car as soon as everything is packed. I flump onto the sofa. ‘Why?’ I say, unable to keep the whinge out of my voice. ‘Why do you have to upend us, just when things are settling?’

Mam’s hands flail and her face pinks. ‘You girls see me as a carnival duck that you can shoot at.’ The lisp has started, a sure sign of fury. ‘A duck that’ll just bob along, a smile on its face, despite your bullets.’

‘Bullets?’ shouts Imy. ‘What are you on about, Mam? Who’s shooting ducks? You’re fucking mad!’

‘Is it any wonder if I am mad?’ Mam roars. ‘You fire complaints at me constantly, Imy. You too, Sharon. I never met such critical girls.’

Imy snorts. ‘We’ve reason to be. You never listen to what we want, you’ve no respect for us.’ She goes up to Mam and pokes her chest. ‘You don’t give a fuck about anyone but yourself. You couldn’t care less about me and Sharon.’

Mam slaps Imy’s cheek so hard that I jump. ‘And what about what I want, Imy?’ she screams. ‘What about me?’ Tears bubble from her eyes. ‘Who cares about me?’

*

I go to walk the prom in Salthill, as I do every morning, and the Atlantic – solid and wild beside me – is a comfort, as always. I look over the sea to Black Head and County Clare, breathe deep on the saline wind, and up my pace. I can see one other person ahead, a small figure with streeling hair, coming towards me. It takes me a few seconds to realise that I’m looking at my mother, out on this April morning, coatless and bare-legged, miles from her flat, all a-trot as if abroad on important business.

I dash to her, calling out, ‘Mam, Mam, what on earth? Where are you going? God almighty.’ I pull off my jacket and go to push her arms through the sleeves. She holds up her fists for me to see the shells and gull feathers she’s clutching.

‘I’m going to decorate my kitchen,’ she says.

‘Oh, Mam.’ I throw my jacket around her shoulders and lead her to where I’ve parked. Her feet slip-slap along the footpath and her legs are grey from cold. ‘Bloody slippers,’ I mutter.

Mam stops walking, stoops forward to look at her feet, then lifts her eyes to mine. ‘I’m going spare, amn’t I, Sharon?’

*

We go to Clones, County Monaghan. Every few years Mam brings us here and snails through the place, looking intently at every building, exploring each street. We crawl the town and Mam surveys in silence; we never get out of the car, and we don’t visit anyone. Imy used to ask if any of our relatives were in Clones, but Mam wouldn’t say and, today, Imy is too sulky to bother. I read the names on the shopfronts and pubs, and wonder if any of these McQuillans, Earls, or Hamiltons are our people and, if they are, whether they ever think of us.

Today Mam takes a hill in the town and turns into the grounds of a church. She drives the car right to where the cemetery begins and gets out.

‘Stay here, girls.’

I watch her flit from plot to plot, crouching in front of gravestones to read their inscriptions.

‘It’s as if she’s looking for a specific grave,’ I say.

‘The cadaver hunter,’ Imy says, putting on her Walkman headphones and slumping low in the seat.

I get out of the car and follow Mam from a distance, watching her dodge behind Celtic crosses and crestfallen angels, wings cocked, arms outspread. I try to imagine a young Mam here, a girl a bit like me, wandery, chatting with herself, the way I do, her head lax and cottony. I get distracted by sunny lichen blossoms on headstones and by the pippity song of a blackbird.

‘Saffron beak,’ I say. ‘Glossy black plumage.’

It’s-me-it’s-me-it’s-me,’ the blackbird replies.

I glance at Mam up ahead of me, as if through mist, and I’m astonished to see that her arms are around another person, a woman. I come up closer. Mam is hugging this woman hard, whoever she is, and they are rocking in each other’s arms, and laughing noisily. Mam doesn’t laugh like this, and she doesn’t have friends. Other women are to be avoided. I step out onto the path to make myself known, but they don’t see me, and then Mam and the woman are fully kissing, the way soap stars kiss, eyes closed, hungry tongues clashing. I stagger backwards, but I’m mesmerised by the crush of their mouths, and I can’t look away. I’ve never known Mam to embrace anyone but Imy and me. She’s off-guard, loose, wild as a bird. She is kissing this woman like a lover and, though my shock is absolute, I find I don’t disapprove because, for once, Mam looks lost and happy, instead of just lost. The woman ends their kiss and, holding Mam by the shoulders, she looks deep into her face.

‘Meggy,’ she says, rivers flowing down her cheeks, and Mam is crying too, real, streaming tears. ‘Oh, Meg.’

And they laugh again, school-girlish titters, and they hug and sway, and then the woman sees me, and she stops all movement. Mam turns her head, spies me, and scowls. She pulls herself out of the woman’s arms and marches towards me. ‘That’s your father,’ she hisses, flinging her hand at a cross-shadowed grave. ‘Imy’s too.’ She stalks back the way we came, and I stare at the well-kept grave, evenly planted with begonias along its sides. I look up and the woman is gone. I step around the cross to read the name.

*

‘Tell me about the Clones doctor, Mam,’ I say.

She has just asked me yet again if she can get me something to eat. She has been changing the TV channel every few minutes, and I want to divert her.

‘Clones?’

‘The doctor there. In the graveyard. You told me he was my father. And Imy’s.’

‘Is that a place – Clones?’

I sigh. ‘Yes, in Monaghan, remember?’

‘Wait now.’ She frowns. ‘Monaghan. And was I there once?’

*

Imy and I can’t agree on what to do with the ashes.

‘Can you not just stick her on your mantelpiece?’ Imy glances to my fireplace. ‘Where is she now?’

‘In my wardrobe.’

‘Ooh, bold Sharon. Meg would do her nut.’ Imy looks ceiling-ward, then changes her mind and addresses the floor. ‘You’d hate that, wouldn’t you, Meg, being all quiet and ignored in some dark corner?’

‘I don’t want Mam stuck on the mantelpiece, like a useless gew-gaw.’

‘She’d hardly be that.’ Imy rolls her eyes. ‘Let’s just decide now. Come on.’

I go to the sideboard and bring two small wooden boxes I’ve bought to the sofa. ‘Why don’t we divide her equally between these? I’ll keep one box and you take the other back to Bilbao.’

‘Split her in half?’ Imy shakes her head. ‘Is that a bit weird?’ ‘Maybe.’ I think again. ‘We could bring her where she was

happiest, then. Scatter her.’

‘Was Meg ever happy, though?’ ‘Ah Imy, help me. I’m trying.’

My sister grimaces. ‘Well, which places did she like, Sharon? You tell me. I haven’t a clue.’

‘Monaghan? Or County Clare, maybe? We all liked Ennis.’

Imy stands up and grabs her jacket. ‘Listen, I don’t give a shite what you do. Let her stay in the wardrobe. Seriously. She’s no use to me.’

*

Today Mam is trying to remember where she comes from. ‘It’s up the way,’ she says, pointing to the ceiling.

‘Heaven?’ I tease. ‘The air? Or did you come down from a nest, Mam? A bird baby.’

‘No, Sharon, up, up. On the map.’ ‘Monaghan,’ I say.

‘Yes, that’s it. Monaghan.’ She closes her eyes and smiles. ‘And, before that, Maumakeogh.’

I look at her. ‘Maumakeogh? Really? First mention of that, Mam.’

‘Oh yes. Maumakeogh. The misty pass.’

‘And where’s that?’ I ask.

‘In Mayo. There, above the sea.’

I peer at her closed eyes and the beatific set to her mouth. She looks placid, content. All this memory-loosening may have brought an ease to her; an ability to rest, to stop running from the shadows that have always crowded in her wake. But I know I’m losing her, too. She’s fading. And I know that because she is more reduced, less able for the smaller things like dressing and using the toilet, soon Imy and I will have to make the decision to put her somewhere; choose her final home.

Every day I come to Mam’s flat to help and to sit with her, and every time she’s quieter, further retreated, than the last. She is busily exiting into some place where no one can follow. And I want, with all my heart, to reach a rope down and pull her back up. Just for a while. I want to winkle from her all of the things that she concealed, and I never tried to uncover. I want, mostly, to ask my mother who she is. Who I am. Where we fit in. But it’s too late, I know. I didn’t insist on those revelations soon enough, and Mam’s descent into a completely private elsewhere, some halcyon place, is now too long underway.

The bird book lies open on her lap. ‘What are you looking at?’ I ask. ‘Which bird?’

Mam’s eyes don’t open; she has drifted into one of her unbidden naps, and I want to leave her there, in the cushion of sleep. I pick up the book and examine the page.

Alcedo atthis. Kingfisher.

*

A Madeira-wine sunset, golden and warm, lights up Liscannor Bay. We took the love-knotted roads of the Burren to get here, Imy driving and me holding the urn. We sang ‘She’ll be comin’ ’round the mountain’ and I held up the urn to sway  it along to the beat, until Imy and I nearly choked on our giggles and snorts.

Imy stops the car above the sea and points to where the cliffs run out. ‘Hag’s Head,’ she says. ‘Appropriate.’

Annoyance whips my heart. ‘You don’t always have to make something bad of Mam, Imy. You could be nicer.’

‘I know I could, Sharon,’ she says, ‘but what am I supposed to do? All our lives Meg disrupted us, pulled us back and forth, took out her disappointments on us. You said yourself you blame her. She was a crap mother; nothing changes that.’

‘She had her moments,’ I say, casting around for good. ‘She was gentler towards the end, you know, softer. Mostly. And she loved us. We know that much.’

Imy sighs. ‘Well, maybe she did and maybe she didn’t. What exactly is love?’

I glance at my sister. ‘Imy, remember that time we went to the graveyard in Clones, after the great Ennis escape?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Mam told me something.’

‘Did she now?’ Imy stares out over the Atlantic, beating its way to the shore. ‘What did she tell you?’

‘She said who our father was.’ Imy’s hard-knuckle grip on the steering wheel is just like Mam’s, the same stressed-out clamp. She puts her forehead to the wheel.

‘Well?’ she says.

I look out at the heaving sea. ‘A married doctor in Clones. Years older than her. Long dead.’

Imy parps a breath through her lips. ‘So that’s that.’ ‘She also told me she came from Mayo originally.’ ‘Jesus fuck, we really knew nothing about her.’ ‘Nothing. And never will now.’

Imy looks at me and grabs my hand. ‘Come on.’

We get out of the car and walk the rough cliff path, the wind lifting our hair. I hold the urn tight to my chest and tuck my free arm through Imy’s.

‘They say kingfishers foretell death,’ I tell her. ‘And they become even more beautiful when they die. Their plumage renews itself, gets plumper, glossier.’ My sister grunts. ‘Imagine, Imy, all that russet and sapphire.’

‘Do you think Mam’s out there somewhere, Sharon, putting on new feathers?’

‘Maybe.’

Imy laughs. ‘Knowing Meg, she most likely is.’

We kneel at the top of the cliff and Imy opens the urn lid with the car key. She puts her two hands over mine, on the pot. I nod and my sister nods too. We hoosh the ashes to the waiting water and, as we do, the sunset flares to a deep orange.

‘Goodbye, Mam,’ I call. ‘Safe travels, Meg,’ Imy says says.

And out she goes, our beautiful mother, out over the sea and into the sun, glorious as any kingfisher, diving into the blue.

(c) Nuala O’Connor

This Small Giddy Life was first published in A Little Unsteadily Into Light (New Island).

Nuala O’Connor’s fifth novel NORA (New Island), about Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, was a Top 10 historical novel in the New York Times and the One Dublin One Book for 2022. Nuala curated the Ulysses 100 exhibition at MoLI, –Love, Says Bloom. She is editor at flash e-journal Splonk.

About NORA: A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce

NORAWhen Nora Barnacle, a twenty-year-old from Galway working as a maid at Finn’s Hotel, meets young James Joyce on a summer’s day in Dublin, she is instantly attracted to him, natural and daring in his company. But she cannot yet imagine the extraordinary life they will share together. All Nora knows is she likes her Jim enough to leave behind family and home, in search of a bigger, more exciting life.

As their family grows, they ricochet from European city to city, making fast friends amongst the greatest artists and writers of their age as well as their wives, and are brought high and low by Jim’s ferocious ambition. But time and time again, Nora is torn between their intense and unwavering desire for each other and the constant anxiety of living hand-to-mouth, often made worse by Jim’s compulsion for company and attention. So, while Jim writes and drinks his way to literary acclaim, Nora provides unflinching support and inspiration, sometimes at the expense of her own happiness, and especially at that of their children, Giorgio and Lucia. Eventually, together, they achieve some longed-for security and stability, but it is hard-won and imperfect to the end.

In sensuous, resonant prose, Nuala O’Connor has conjured the definitive portrait of this strong, passionate and loyal Irishwoman. Nora is a tour de force, an earthy and authentic love letter to Irish literature’s greatest muse.

Order your copy online here.

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