Mam wants a mermaid instead of me and though I slip out of her like a fish in the birthing pool on a rainy day, I have no tail or scales, and I do not smell of the sea, and when Pa tries to give her this squalling too-many-limbed me, she tells him ‘Some cactuses don’t grow towards the light,’ but she doesn’t mind when I’m swaddled and even though she’s not got baby shoes or any clothes with legs, she does not go out to buy them and keeps me zipped up like a clam in sleeping-bag suits or wraps me in layers of long seaweed coloured shifts and smocks she ties with twine, and tells me ‘Scales are like if cactus spines were flat, or umbrellas closed when there’s no rain,’ and she does not encourage me to walk, so I sit with her as she tells me of her dream of Pa and her dancing on the boardwalk at Coney Island and she sings, ‘Somewhere beyond the sea…’ or I lie on my back or belly to slide across the floor, legs lost in the folds that follow, or I ride on Pa’s old skateboard with the scull and crossbones, a knot to stop hems getting caught, and I sail out the back door and down the garden path, like a minnow on a stream, and she calls me Guppy, Betta, or Angelfish and when she’s angry Sprat, and when the time comes for me to start nursery she puts it off, saying she doesn’t want to be left like a lone cactus on a dessert shore, me gone in the morning, Pa gone to security work at night and asleep in the day, until he comes to say goodbye to me out back, and stands in sunlight at the garden fence, hand over one eye to see, turning it into a telescope, to say ‘I spy a mermaid swimming in the bluebell sea,’ a bottle hanging from his other hand, uisce beatha, the water of life, company on the boat at night, that harbours the pirate radio-station, that Mam listens to, out of reach of the Gardai, the guardians of the peace, and when Pa’s gone Mam goes on the phone, requesting songs, laughing like she’s never done with Pa and waves from the bedroom window, the mermaid tail cactus he gave her on the sill and she looks past the field I’m in and down the hill to the sea, and the wind picks up, the net curtains fill like sail, and the air carries words of hers, like ‘freedom’, ‘escape’ and ‘yes’ and the wind vane turns and the white net curtain with it, to slap across Mam’s body and shroud her face, a ghost now standing in the window, as if all that’s left of her is the mermaid tail, and as I watch, I feel the bluebell sap stick my toes together, and I lie back in the grass and by my face in the bluebell sky hangs the first moon daisy which I pick and pluck the petals from to confirm I should spend that summer, weaving a mermaids tail from dried seaweed, seagrass, long grass and weeds to hide in the shed, to show Mam when we come home, from her first day of work and mine of school, where I spend the hours kicking off my shoes, the teacher complaining about spills and falls and other children copying me, until the floor is littered with shoes and he tells me to pick up every one and return them, and I do, to the fish tank that has lost its fish and watch the shoes swim, laces flailing in the bubbles coming from the fake plastic treasure chest, and Mam has to come from the canning factory to pick me up, smelling of sardines and oil, and says, ‘There are twenty-one species of fish called sardine,’ and asks why can’t I be one, as she lifts me up from the chair I was told to wait on, wrapping my duffle coat round my bare legs and feet, as she takes me to the car, and says, ‘The sea urchin cactus only wakes at sunset,’ and straps me in the front passenger seat and we drive, I can’t see where, but it’s not home, and the radio plays ‘This is the sea’ by the Water Boys and I fall asleep and wake in quiet until Mam’s car door opens to let in the sound of the seagulls and sea and closes, and I slip out of the seat belt and up on my knees to lean on the warm dashboard, and watch through the windscreen, what she calls cactus clouds with little pricks of rain, roll in, as she disappears as if she was never there, into the sea, the rain making the glass between us a blur, and I switch on the radio, the orange light of the dial like a little sunset in the dark of the car and I remember the sea urchin cactus Mam said only woke at sunset as I listen to the presenter announce a special request, from The Last Pirate to his treasures at home and ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’ plays and dovetails into the traditional Irish song, ‘Óró, sé do bheatha abhaile’, O row, you are welcome home, making my neck prickle, and still leaning on the now cold dashboard, the skin on my arms goose-pimples and my legs go numb, as I wait for Mam to come out of the sea.
I found this piece outstanding. The final image of the child at the ‘now cold dashboard’ stayed with me – I loved the push of the pace, the lyrical language and structure, the child’s view layered over the lives of the parents; the way the mother’s condition surfaces almost as though it were revealed by the sea, with intricate, telling detail. A rhythm and crescendo that felt like a sea-swept dirge.Catherine McNamara
The voice is immediate and intimate. The language is lush. The pace is breathless. It rewards re-reading.Adam Lowe
Wonderfully poetic and evocative and with great detail and atmosphere. Strong voice and emotional resonance.Dr Clare Morgan