In this story, winner of the runner-up prize at this year's RTÉ Short Story Competition, an incapacitated woman endures a visit from her daughter and grandchildren. Listen to Mamó above, and read it below...
Author Sara Keating says: 'I cannot stand them:' Mamó was inspired by a throwaway comment by a casual acquaintance of my mother's. I was struck by the power of those words, but also by the vulnerability they exposed, and how such views are rarely given voice in public. What is it like to dislike those who you are supposed to love? What is it like to see your child make choices so different from your own?"
Mamó by Sara Keating
Don't tell Sally, but I cannot stand them. Sitting there, three little bums on six small hands instructed not to touch anything. 'Put your quiet hands underneath your tush,’ Sally claps and sings, as if music is the only language a child can understand.
Why does Sally bring them? Once a week is all she manages to come, so why can she not leave them at home with a babysitter, or out in the car with Steven, even. I can see him from the window, bent face burnished blue with the light from his phone. Nothing wrong with these eyes. He has grown a beard, but still he looks too fresh, too casually unflustered, to be a father, slouched in the cupped c of the passenger seat, the peak of a baseball cap peeking out beneath a yellow hood. How can he bear it? It is hot, so hot today.
The sun is streaming in through the glass, trapping the heat in the sterile sealed room, with its chemical smells and the fetid fatal air of the dying. When Sally was small, she would lie in the middle of the lawn with a magnifying glass trained upon whatever small creature she had trapped in an old margarine carton. Vengeful, heartless child.
Why has that long ago come to mind? Oh yes. The heat. The relentless eye-stunning sun. No choice now but to turn to the door where the children are sitting, three ducks in a row, blank and obedient statues.
Oh, I really cannot stand them.
I hear them coming, skipping down the corridor for the weekly pilgrimage. Full of life and cheek for the nurses. Frisky little lambs. Then the plunged insulting shush as they turn into my room and hover in the doorway, until Sally up-my-loves them, and they climb on to their plastic thrones to sit in silent revolted judgement.
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Where does Sally find the toggery? Sequinned t-shirts with winking yellow eyes, shorts as short as knickers. Rainbow striped knee-socks and stone-scuffed shoes. One of them – the middle one? The youngest? Hard to tell – is the colour of dandelions, from nose to knee, shining yellow skin. I have never once seen them in the dresses I bought for their birthdays, for Christmas. Sally might not have liked them, but she could have got the children to give them a twirl out of politeness.
As for Sally. Stretched and sprung flesh melts over the rim of her jeans, soft wax at the stump of a candle. She has let herself go.
That’s what we would have said back in my day, anyway, but Sally says it is not acceptable anymore to comment on a woman’s appearance, or a girl’s. When the first of the children was born, fine-boned and long-limbed, a little fawn, I said, ‘what a pretty little thing’, just words to fill the air but truth, of course, truth, and Sally said, with a condescending infant coo, ‘let’s find you some more interesting adjectives, Mum.’ Then down to the baby, ‘oh look at those strong little legs kicking,’ letting its slender fingers pull her hair. ‘What a determined little baba you are!’
The new one is bound to the front of her so she cannot bend over, even to kiss her old mum. She must be roasting underneath all that fabric.
Don’t tell Sally, but I cannot remember the children’s names. Queer foreign ones. Too many vowels. I still have no inkling what she called the boy, if it is a boy at all.
It is hard to tell what she has smothered under her coat there, lying back in the scooped chair, pink bootees dangling like extra useless limbs on either side of where her waist should be. She has closed her eyes to the windowsun, so it is easy to study her, the tender bruises underneath her shut lids, the drawn spectral ash of her skin. Too stubborn for paint of course.
‘How are you today, Mum?’ Even her voice is no-sleep-shattered. ‘I’m tired anyway. Was up all night with this little rascal.’ Her mouth lifts with a brief wan smile, and the ghost of it stays upon her face, in the creases, even when her lips fall to thin straight repose. ‘Do you know he would feed all night if you let him? And sleep all day. Well, at least the girls are sleeping through now.’
Her body ruckles with the mention of them, and she sits up and throws a glance to the girls, as if half expecting they have disappeared – where would they go? – but they are still sitting mousy and mute on their chairs, in unnatural stupefied quiet.
The jumper lump on Sally’s chest startles with the sudden movement, then. Piglet squeals muffled by fabric. The pair of them must be bound together by sweat. Sally thrusts her hips gently in the chair, but the baby doesn’t settle, so she stands and shushes, bounces tidily, up and down on her feet, like she is riding an invisible horse. ‘Oh no!’she sighs, as he starts to howl, but she is beaming, proud. ‘He must be the hungriest baby in the world.’
Here we go, then. Time to unravel and show the world your bosoms, Sally!
Yes! There they are, swollen and blue-veined, milk-mottled nipples as big as the moon. I told her on the first one – Ariel. Yes that’s it, like the washing powder – when Sally still came to visit, to sit at the kitchen table and cry, leaked milk staining her grubby grey t-shirt. I said, ‘let me take the child and try and quieten her,' but Sally would not let me lay my hands on it. Would just flop her breast out and squeeze the milk drops into its bawl-opened mouth before shoving it in, a fleshy soother. Singing, of course, always singing. ‘Milk for my baby, milk made by me.’ Then, no placating prosody for her mother. ‘See! That is all she needs, Mum. I am all she needs.’
Slurp and slobber. Gasp and gulp. Oh, he is a shameless little thing, eyes scrunched, nose pressed, lips curled, drinking his mother in. I would turn the TV on, for distraction, for decency, but I cannot reach the controls, and I cannot ask Sally. Sally doesn’t believe that children should watch TV. Imagine! Had she not seen her fill of cartoons and quiz shows when she was a girl? And it did her no harm. She went to college. Got her doctorate. Though what was it all for when she was determined to unspin evolution and be nothing more than a mammal.
I inquired, politely, when the second came so fast after the first, when she would be going back to work, and Sally said, ‘this is my work now, Mum.’ Then she had the third and then the fourth, and she will be lucky now if she ever gets out of the home. I wanted to warn her then. ‘It isn’t TV you need to worry about rotting the brain, my girl, but motherhood. I worked the days long for you to stand on your own well-stockinged feet.’
But things were different back then. It was bottles of powdered milk, warmed if she wouldn’t take it cold, and someone whose children were already raised to mind her until the school would take her. And that was good enough. Wasn’t it good enough for you, Sally?
It’s one of the girls calling, not Sally. They look nothing like Sally did when she was young, but it is hard to tell how they might scrub up, washed and polished, like Sally always was. The prettiest girl – yes, the prettiest! – on the road.
- Mammy? I’m hungry.
Oh! What’s this miracle now. The baby still on her breast, Sally is up and shambling to her bag on the floor near the door. She bends and rummages, opens a noisy foil packet using fingers and teeth, and passes it to the middle one to hold, the baby still guzzling away. And she’s not finished yet. Don’t forget the song. ‘Clean hands are happy hands, Everybody understands,’ using her mouth at the same time to pop the lid off a bottle which she pumps with her thumb, spraying magic soap upon their palm-turned hands. They all sing along, rubbing the lotion in, knitted fingers in prayer.
Don’t tell Sally, but I cannot stand the smell. Sickly lavender and disinfectant. And has the baby soiled its nappy? Oh, the window, the window! Open the window! What I would not do for a breath of fresh air!
A different soundtrack now. Rustle, nibble, crunch. Tiny teeth taking tidy bites, crumbs spilling silently to the floor, dandruff shaken from a shoulder.
What is it the girls are eating? Pale papery discs that look like holy communion. I want to tell them there are biscuits in my locker, buttery sweetness sandwiched with jam and cream. Oh look your mad granny is not so bad after all! But Sally disapproves of sugar, says it’s a drug. Even at the house, when she still came to visit, she would unpack a tower of Tupperware along with the baby toys. Sliced grapes, diced cucumber, pungent hardboiled eggs. As if her own mother’s food wasn’t good enough for them. What harm was there in a biscuit? Was a biscuit not a rare pleasure in life?
- There’s a drink in my bag darling. Just let me finish feeding Teddy.
Teddy, yes. That’s it. Teddy. Hard to imagine a grown man with the name but it is perfect for the dark-downed cuddly chubb of this bundle. See him looking at me now over Sally’s shoulder. Face uncreased and eyes milk-bright, a windy smile on his suckle-stained lips. Oh they are lovely, just lovely, when they are so small, when they know nothing more about the world than what they are shown by their mother.
- We need to go now, Mum. These scallywags need their nap, but we will see you next Saturday, won’t we my little munchkins. Up now and give your Mamó a kiss.
Don’t tell Sally, but I don’t want them climbing up on the bed beside me, bony elbows in my ribs, sticky lips and the smell of soap from their pulsing warm bodies.
Oh, I cannot stand them. I cannot stand them, and it is so hot, so hot in here. The sweat is trickling down my cheeks, skimming the scalloped neckedge of my nightdress, puddling in my clavicle. I must ask someone to open the window.
- Oh Mum. It’s okay.
Sally’s motherworn face is right up close to mine now, her rough fingers stroking my cheek eye to ear. And she’s singing. That cradlehymn I used to hum when I came in at night from a day on the shop floor and she was in her white shift tucked in bed already, asleep. ‘Hush little darling don’t you cry, Listen to your Mama’s lullaby.’
Oh, those children are so lucky, and they do not even know it.
I want to tell them. I want to say ‘enjoy every moment of your mother, girls. It won’t be long before you despise her.’ But when I turn to the door all I see are the seats: ugly empty mockeries.
What has Sally done with them? There is no car in the parking bay outside the window and the sun has slid into the trees. The baby is gone too. It is almost nighttime.
‘No. No.' I want to shout. ‘Don’t wipe my face. Don’t sing to me. I am not one of your children!’
But I say nothing. Can say nothing.
‘Don’t tell anyone, Sally,’ I almost cry out. ‘But I am afraid.’
About the author: Sara Keating is a writer and cultural journalist. She was DLR Writer in Residence 2020-2021, where she completed work on her first novel, Fall and Recover, about the dancer Lucia Joyce, and, on a rainy day after she completed the final draft, this story. Bloomsday, 1935, an excerpt from Fall and Recover, is published this month in Banshee: A Literary Journal.
Mamó was read on air by Ingrid Craigie on Tuesday 28 September as part of the RTÉ Short Story Competition series 2021 in honour of Francis MacManus, which runs weeknights on Late Date from Monday 27 September to Friday 8 October at 11.20pm on RTÉ Radio 1.
Listen back to a special Arena with Seán Rocks from Monday 27 September in which judges Lucy Caldwell, Declan Hughes and Lisa McInerney discussed this year's shortlist and announced their overall winners.