Mum thinks I’m Dad. She’s holding me and won’t let me go. I could be wrong but the way she took me by the arms and stared into my eyes before she hugged me, there was just so much love. I’ve only ever seen her look that way at one person. And you have to give it to the man. Even in death – even through Mum losing her mind – he’s still making her happy.
I’ve tensed up. I don’t want her to notice and hurt her feelings. I wish I could just let it happen and feel it. Take the affection and pretend it’s for me. Steal love from a dead man.
I could pretend I’m him, for her.
Is she even in that moment any longer? Maybe she’s forgotten who it is she’s hugging and why? Staying still out of embarrassment, hoping it will come to her. I shuffle round to catch a glimpse of her face in the window of the conservatory. I’ll know then. We sway like awkward teenagers at a dance but Mum won’t turn. Feet planted, her hug tightens.
I feel claustrophobic in her arms. For years I hugged mum and felt her freeze. Tolerating my touch but never returning it. And not once did she initiate it. In the end I gave up. I’ve only started hugging her again since she’s been gone.
Voices approach. I pull away, gently, giving the polite signal ‘That was lovely, Mum, but enough now’, but no reaction from her. What is left of her in there? Even the humiliation of public displays has gone.
Two women enter the conservatory and break off their chat to look at us.
‘Ach, hello’, one says, as they head towards us.
I smile and nod, rolling my eyes like. You how it is!
‘How are you?’ she stops beside me, out of view.
‘Fine’, I push Mum away firmer but she squeezes me tighter.
‘How’s your mammy?’ one asks. I twist my neck but all I can see is the side of her head and one huge hooped earring. I imagine a little parrot perched on it, swinging to and fro.
‘Great’, I say and give up straining to make eye contact.
‘Ach’, I hear, and the two women shuffle into view to nod at me. One nudges the other.
I’ve no idea who these women are. Could be Belfast banter. Have I met them in here? Or maybe they know Mum from before everything.
‘So, you’re back then?’ the chatty one shows no signs of moving on.
‘Yeah, for a few days, then work, you know?’ We’re all pretending it’s completely normal to hold a conversation while crushed in a WWF body grip.
‘Ach’, she looks to the other one who nods and smiles at me. ‘How’s her feet?’
I search my mind for a link. ‘Great’, I smile. I don’t know what she means but I want them to go away.
‘Sure, I’ll let you go’, she says, without irony.
‘Ok, all the best’, I nod.
They smile, nod back and head on. Why is it when I talk to people from Belfast, I feel like I’m in a bad Irish play? I hear them continue their chat in quieter voices until I’m left in silence with the hug.
‘OK, Mum, now, come on we go for a walk’, I pull away – no nonsense.‘No’, she says.
Goosebumps tickle me. Her first word in ten years. Since Dad died and she got sick. She’s coming back. Some of her. She thinks I’m Dad and she’s coming back for him. She’s holding on for dear life, afraid he’ll leave her again. Or maybe that moment’s passed too and she’s afraid that if she stops hugging and pulls back, it won’t be his face she sees. How heartbreaking for her to find me.
My shoulders have risen to my ears. I’m not enjoying this. Mum rubs my back. Oh God, it’s not going to get funny is it? If she does think I’m Dad she might get frisky.
I breathe out long and slow like I’ve been taught.
Mum gently strokes my back. I can just feel her fingertips through my thin shirt. Tickling. Inside me there are shifts and turns, I feel them, like a combination lock clicking into place. The nursing home smell of toilet and school dinners is overpowered by that of dust burning on bars of an electric fire and the fusty smell of old carpet getting warm. I close my eyes and see dark red, floral-patterned wallpaper and a faded-brown, threadbare, Persian-style rug on the floor.
How’s Mum’s feet? I think.
Ma’s just in from work. ‘Do your Mammy’s feet,’ she says, wrestling with her shoes. I turn on the electric fire with the plastic coal flickering from a spinning fan over a red bulb. The second her shoes are off, Mum collapses on the sofa like the shoes were a stopper and all the air’s been let out of her.
I’m in the kitchen filling the washing up basin with scalding-hot water from the kettle adding those mysterious, healing salts from the cupboard under the sink. An old newspaper from the coal-hole is placed on the floor between her feet. I fetch the special knife, and the good towel that’s still fluffy. I carry the heavy basin, water sloshing up its sides.
‘Be careful with that, wee boy,’ she says. My eyes wide, my tongue out with teeth clamped down on it. I did this to stop me daydreaming. Pain kept me present. Mum had taught me that many’s-a-time with a slap.
‘Are you trying to kill me?’ Ma shouts as her feet touch the water.
I chuckle, bringing me back to the nursing home. I laugh into Mum’s shoulder and she hugs me tighter. Now I could cry – hearing her voice again in my head. Even when I dream of her she’s silent. I’d forgotten how she sounded, like people say they forget the faces of the dead. And now I have it – her.
‘How are your feet, Mum?’ I ask. She doesn’t respond.
I think about biting my tongue. Do I still do that? No. Through years of yoga and meditation I’ve learned other ways to stay in the moment, other than hurting myself, but breathing hadn’t come to Belfast back then. Like olives, garlic, men pushing prams and women driving cars.
I’m happier – settling into this holding. I mean, it’s a nice thing to do. For her. If this is what she wants. So what if I’m pretending to be my dead Dad? I’ve never heard of anyone doing it. I guess it’s not the kind of thing people talk about.
Will she say anything else, not only now, but ever? I take my arm from around her shoulder and search for my phone in my pocket. Mum grabs my arm and puts it back around her.
‘I’m just getting my phone’, I say. I want to record her. Before I lose her again.
‘No’ she shouts. That’s me told. I laugh.
She spoke again. I feel like a father hearing his child’s first words. No, that’s just weird.
‘Mammy, how’s your feet?’
She doesn’t answer. Mum’s feet. Wow – they were seriously ugly. They could have been used on warning posters in GP surgeries for smoking, excessive drug use, or some flesh eating virus caught from exotic travel. Bunions, corns, little toes the size of knuckles and big toes with joints like elbows.
I’m sitting on the carpet, in our old house, the one I had to sell to keep Mum here. My legs wrapped around the basin, staring at her. She’s bright red, forehead sweating, and those mysterious salts have turned steam into magic vapour. She’s under a spell, transported to paradise.
I put my hands in the scalding water and lift a foot out. I test an area of her heel by running a fingernail along it, to see if the hard skin has softened, and skin peels. With the knife I scrape the hard skin, watching it curl like a hot spoon along a tub of ice-cream. I do the thickest areas first, on the heel and the ball of her foot, then the delicate areas at the side. I work until her skin feels smooth and even squeaks.
I hear voices walking past me in the nursing home but I don’t look up. Mum’s tickling my back again and I don’t want to break it. What if she breaks it? Stops holding me.
My lungs fold.
She might never hug me again. That thought, like a fist, punches my stomach.
Deep, slow, breath, in.
This must be to do with Dad. She would be more here if he was still around in some way. A reminder of what she lived for. Maybe I could pretend to be him when I come. What am I saying?
Deep, slow, breath, out. And another.
If he was the reason she ended up here, isn’t it possible I could use him to reverse it somehow? Even just a little? I know he’s dead but . . .
We had been expecting Dad to die. He had been disappearing from cancer for a few years. Said our goodbyes a few times. The Doctor said Mum’s early onset of dementia was triggered by depression and grief. He didn’t know that Mum lived for Dad. She was devoted to him. Her mind was wired – set to him. Pleasing him was behind everything she did. Her love for him was a like a thick fog that made it hard for her to see anything else. Mum lost her mind when Dad died, but from the moment she met him, I don’t think her mind was ever hers again. And when he died, her brain turned off. Her body abandoned like a toy without its batteries.
I come back from the kitchen with the talc to see Mum half asleep, whilst sitting up, on our sofa.
‘Lie back’, I guide her, lifting her feet as she does. I sit, slipping under her legs and rest those feet on my lap. I stroke her legs with my fingers. I kept my nails long for it. Barely touching her, I run my nails along varicose veins like long, purple branches. Tickling her.
‘That’s enough you’, she says, impatient with the pleasure even in half sleep. Happiness was something to be had for a few moments. Not to be indulged in.
Mum’s poor feet . . . Two jobs, both standing, while Dad sat down at his. Long distance driving. Long distance skiving I called it. I blamed him for her feet, for her working so hard.
‘Where’s Daddy?’ I asked her. What I was really saying was – he’s not here, he never is, you shouldn’t be working like this, but see how I love you, more than him, why do you love him anyway when he’s never here, even when he’s back from work?
She knew what I meant. I know that now. Because of what she told me next.
‘Did I ever tell you how I met your Daddy?’ she shuts her eyes.
She tells me how she left school at fourteen and went to work in a mill. They made her work barefoot because the floors were so wet. She’d work alongside other girls, nodding to their talk but spent every morning watching the clock, waiting for lunchtime. She couldn’t miss Dad.
She’d met him at a dance. So handsome, she said, a snazzy dresser, he could dance like the Devil and charm Death into going next door.
They fell in love.
Dad worked in a factory in town back then and on his lunch break he’d run through the streets of Belfast, three miles to her work. Mum would wait until 1.30 then walk to the small window on the factory floor. She wasn’t tall enough to see out, but could stand on her toes and reach her hand out to wave. She knew he was there, on the street below and imagined him waving back.
My father would watch her wave, he told her, and wait till her hand disappeared back into the little square on the fourth floor, then run all the way back to work again, through Catholic and Protestant areas alike, risking his very life, just to see her hand.
I didn’t believe it. Dad’s side, I mean. She was waving to an empty street. He had made a fool out of her.
‘How do you know he was there?’ I asked.
In the silence that followed I watched the fine hairs on Mum’s legs stand to attention as they did when tickled her. She looked at me and rubbed the goose bumps on her arms.
Mum never asked me to do her feet again.
Mum is tickling my back. Around me the residents are being ferried to dinner. I hold her tight. Mum runs her fingertips over my shoulders, mapping whole continents on my back. I wait for her to stop. For the moment when she says to herself. That’s enough. It doesn’t come and I dissolve, like those salts she loved so much.
Maybe Dad did run all that way, and back, every day, I think. Maybe he stood in the street, waving to a tiny hand out of a fourth floor window. Maybe Mum isn’t thinking I’m Dad and knows it’s me here in her arms. Maybe she wants me to know just much she loves me and she’s tickling me because I used to tickle her all those years ago. Maybe I just want to believe it. Maybe I chose to.
‘Are you staying with your Mum, for her tea?’ a voice calls.
I open my eyes to see a smiling nurse.
‘Yes’, I say.
‘She was pointing at her feet today’, the nurse frowns.
‘Ah,’ I say. ‘Do you have a basin?’
Paul McVeigh’s short stories have been published in literary journals and anthologies, read on BBC Radio 5 and commissioned by BBC Radio 4. He is the Co-Founder of London Short Story Festival, of which, he was the Director and Curator for 2014 & 2015. He is Associate Director at Word Factory, the UK’s premier short story salon. The Good Son is his first novel and was shortlisted for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize and was chosen for Brighton’s City Reads 2016. It will appear in French and German editions in 2016. He received The McCrea Literary Award in 2015. Paul has read his work at The International Conference on the Short Story in Vienna, Wroclaw International Short Story Festival, Poland, twice at Cork International Short Story Festival, Belfast Book Festival, Brighton Festival, Cork World Book Festival and on BBC Radio 5. His blog for writers which posts on submission opportunities for journals and competitions has had over a 1 million visitors.