Shall We Sing

‘Oh it’s a grand and beautiful thing’ Edna said as she leaned herself in towards us.

Her right hand gripped her spindly knee while the table took the full weight of her left elbow. She spoke quietly and steadily but with an icy certainty given credence by her coarse Cork voice that rattled heavily like a sack of rusty chains. 

‘A gathering’, she continued, little more audible than a whisper, ‘a sharing of things, of love, of thoughts and unwritten and unspoken giving’.

She took a small sip of her drink and then, looking straight into our eyes, she secured our full attention before finishing, ‘there is nothing more precious in this world than a smile, a recognition, the extra tight embrace from knowing and sharing all our stories. Our mutual histories. Do you hear?’

I held her in awe. A cantankerous, red haired old owl with a passion for fine words, for the gentle craft of the spoken word. I’d pay her back with the written word I remember thinking. One day I’ll write a book about you Aunty Edna I used to say.

It was a little boy’s first birthday, Danny boy. A baby to make a perfect extra piece in the smooth edged jigsaw of our family, as seamless as the first carved shape. A little boy at the head of the table watched by the loving adoring eyes of family and friends that say, you’re so very very welcome you gorgeous boy – here’s your cake, shall we sing? Let’s all sing. It’s a birthday, a celebration, a party. Let’s blow out the candles and dance, form a circle and dance until we ache from dancing and we can dance no more.

I was the first to break free from all that.  I left home the next day, only just eighteen, with a bag of clothes, a shoebox of food and a bottle of whiskey. I’d drained the bottle to half full and so woke with a poison stewed stomach twisted with the wrench of fear and a tongue still coated with neat spirit.  The deep dark blue walls and dense velvet curtains of my tiny box bedroom had enjoyed their last night as my protector.

‘Are you ready?’ I remember my mum stood just outside my bedroom door. 

Something in her voice and her face made it clear she was in pain. She was dressed with immaculate neatness in her proud Sunday best, dark blues from head to toe and shoes fit for a coronation. I sat motionless on my bed. It took the strength of every muscle in my neck to lift my heavy, sodden head off my chest.  This was agony; we both felt it, we both knew it, but we never said it.

Mum spoke slowly and softly, to make me feel safe. She smiled but it was an excruciating forgery, for herself as much as me.

To assure me that I could go, that it was ok, she repeated in a lighter pitch, ‘Dara, are you ready my love?’

She wasn’t ready and never would be. She was heartbroken and scared for both of us, I know that now. Thank God I didn’t know that then. It was my mum that had given me the bottle of whiskey. A deeply important gift wrapped in symbolism, buried deeply and subconsciously back then.

‘Don’t drink it all at once, mum said. ‘and for Christ’s sake don’t let anyone see it’.

As it turned out I was to be the only fresh faced new student with such instructions and before I’d even got there I’d ignored it. From a Mum who could never afford a whole bottle of whiskey for herself I’d taken it and I’d slugged my way pathetically through a good whole half of it, on my own in my room until the medicinal numbness kicked in. I was fighting so hard to break free and yet racing desperately to lock the door from inside. I chose the behavior of my father because I didn’t know what else to do. There was no precedent for this in my family, nor amongst friends, neighbours or anyone that our family knew. A life of education was for others, not us. For years my bedroom door had said ‘do not disturb’. But the silence, space and solitude were part of my plan in my dark room. Save for a bed and a desk, my small sparse dark box room. The stolen desk wedged against the wall oozed a dusty sour smell. The desk drawers were like mini coffins of a secret past; scattered with dust and the debris of dull office days.  But it was my space to learn and however putrid, my own air to breath.

Still I sat and stared, unable to move. My ribs squeezed unbearably tight to my lungs and my eyes struggled to focus.  Through my open window I could hear children playing in the September sunshine and the rhythmic humming of a distant car radio. The crystal white net curtains bulged musically with rolling flurries of fresh air but I couldn’t feel it’s presence on my skin. 

‘The bus won’t wait my love,’ said my calm mum, stepping forward with a gentle urgency.

Tacked on to the wood chip wall, where my eyes were fixed were not posters of heros or profiles of pop stars. Rather my road map to some place else; timetables, details of classes and exams, learning goals, summaries of text and nuggets of knowledge. My world was about to unlock and let the fresh gushing air rush in, but I felt helpless and unready and I could barely catch my breath.

I heard my father staggering across the hallway. Bold as brass, without the remotest sense of shame and still stinking from last night’s boozing and rough sleeping.

‘You ready yet?’ he slurred as he tried to focus his glossy eyes on me. ‘Don’t you wanna get on this bus?’ he snapped impatiently, as if he were driving the thing himself.

Each and every time I see him like this I want to punch his bloody lights out.

‘I got you to this my girl,’ his voice picked up volume.

He shoved my mum aside and stepped through my door jabbing his fat, yellow stained forefinger in my direction. Muscles so bereft of strength were suddenly galvanized and firm. That unshaven drunk jump-started my heart and finally I stood up. I grabbed my bag, I smiled at my Mum and I stood right in front of him.

‘Quite what the hell it’s got to do with you, I’ve no bloody idea’, I spoke straight to his face.  ‘I’ve got where I’m going despite of you and every single bloody thing that you’ve done’.

He spat out his reply. I could taste the tobacco,

‘you’re a nobody you and you always will be, ok? A little dreaming shite with a romance for long poncy words is what you are. There is no university in the world that will turn that crap into anything and that’s the bloody truth.’

‘Please stop’ pleaded Mum, losing the fight to repel tears.

The fear got me then. A perpetual familiar fear that his violent fist would again follow on the trail of his vile tongue. On top of that I was frightened for what I was leaving behind and guilty to be escaping. 

But I steeled myself and stepped around him. I started walking and never stopped. The book was there to be written and there was nothing he could say anymore that would make me stop.

 

Helen Donohoe

 

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