You wake ravenous and a little too early, snorting and sucking the air as we lump you sleepily from Daddy to Mammy to breast. Twenty minutes light sleep while you latch firm and determined to my full and hardened boob, mewing and smacking until your thirst subsides a bit.
While you drink from one, the milk rushes in and pisses full force across the room from the other breast in three strong white lines, and we laugh and sigh and stay it with a cloth and promise each other we’ll change the sheets after breakfast.
When you are full you’re ready to smile, nipple still in your mouth in case I try to take it back, a waste of white on your lips. You look me in the eye for the first time this morning and say something you think we understand. You laugh, suckle some more until you’re ready for a drunken, satisfied little puke, and we promise each other again about the sheets.
7 a.m. is your happiest and most demanding hour. Daddy makes a play of changing your nappy, as though he had no idea how much they have smelled every morning for the one hundred and twenty one days he has known you, and you chuckle as though you know why he’s making faces.
Back in bed we talk nonsense and laugh because we see why everything is so funny for you, and you rub Daddy’s beard until you get bored and we read to you, and I eat your toes and - holding your fat balls of hands - walk you up and down my tummy where you used to grow, folded into yourself like a secret only you and I knew, and we play airplanes and congratulate you loudly when you move the beads up the abacus and take it away before you get frustrated and I tell myself never to forget your baby scent.
Because parents must. Because if every person responsible for the life of another person felt this much love all the time self could not exist, nothing else could matter and the world couldn’t work the way it does.
I will forget this as I am forgetting falling in love.
By the time you woke for your feed, I had made you a book. The book told our story. It began when your father and I met. It chronicled our holidays together, the drunken karaoke, the kisses in the kitchenette while we waited for the coffee to splurt up through the funnel of that aluminium espresso pot your daddy had back then. That was before we knew that aluminium causes cancer. I had glued the photographs into a notebook urgently, and scrawled a narrative beside it in baby language.
I found the notebook this morning. In all the photos we are smiling. I have written you a story that is simple and not a lie. I say how in love we were, how happy, and the photographs seem to prove it. I do not say that you were planned, because that is implausible, as well as untrue. Nor do I tell you that we were stoned when you were conceived. I do not tell you that the morning after pill was too expensive. Anyway, that might have been a different time. I am no good on dates.
I write that your daddy was happy when I said 'We are going to have a little baby'. That is not exactly how I put it at the time, but close enough. I tell you we both laughed and were happy. I tell you that he kissed my tummy. I do not tell you that we made love then, kissing each others’ faces, eyelids, necks, looking at each other in the twilight under bed sheets.
There are pictures of Halloween, when we tied a silk orange scarf around the bump, and your daddy drew two eyes and a nose and a mouth to make you a pumpkin. 'Bump-kin', we called you all night. We went out and had dinner with a lot of people, some of them we didn't know. The girl opposite me had recently had an abortion, I thought I understood the smashed-apart look she had; eyes like cracked eggs, and the way she said 'I am free', when your Daddy asked her if she had children. He should have had more sense than to ask that, but he knew no better. He is no good at reading eyes.
She left half-way through the main course, and the host explained to your daddy afterwards. 'How stupid', he said, 'To have seated her opposite you pair. Silly Jules- I just didn't think...'. I don't tell you that part, or what I thought as we looked at each other, me in my witch costume and she dressed as cat woman, weak smiles wavering across the black tablecloth and 'ghoulish goulash'. I thought that we should have gone somewhere alone. I should have held her and she me, and we could both have cried. That didn't happen though, because I had no idea how to orchestrate such a scene, and because I don't think she liked me very much. I looked so happy.
Your daddy won a prize for his Dracula costume. I was dressed in black; the top had enough room for you at the front, and the back was bare except for some black ribbons webbed over my skin. He had stolen a great long white wig from the pound shop, which made me look glamorous and gothic. In the photograph we are beautiful and extravagant- grinning with our dark, painted mouths, my eyes frilled with fake lashes. There is an envelope stuck to the page opposite, with the orange scarf tucked into it.
At an opening night your daddy's friend said: 'Your fella said something so beautiful in rehearsals last week'. This friend is very beautiful herself. When I told your Daddy I thought so once, he shook his head, 'No, I don't think so. She's attractive in the way that Sharon is attractive'. He didn't realise that I knew about Sharon.
'Oh? What did he say?' I asked, watching her geisha lips part and touch and wondering what it was like to kiss them. 'He said watching you feed the baby makes him wish he had breasts'. I tried to giggle but a cackle came out. ‘Oh. boob-envy’, I said. The words sounded bitter. She thought me unworthy, inappropriate. I bought us both another drink.
I could say ‘We were in love. Now we are not. Shit happens.’ as though that were some sort of acceptable truth, something that would not rip value out from under your wobbly first steps. I could say ‘It didn’t work out’- a popular phrase, though it doesn't mean very much.
I don't think I should ever show you that notebook. It can't do anything for you now. I will have to make a new story for us, one that is not a lie, but not too crushing either. Mothers should tell stories.
I think I made it for me, that book. To simplify things, to change things, to testify. I think I was trying not to forget the things that were beginning to crumble in my fist, simply because they were always going to. I wanted to have something to go on whenever I would begin to construct our story for you. I knew how he reduced history to a sentence, I knew he would forget. When he remembers our life together I will be an anonymous blank, the cut-out shape of a woman moving through the story of him and his late twenties and his son. Looking through it, turning the stiff pages, grubby from that night of pritt-stick thumb marks, I can't find the moment. I can't see when it all became performance. When it was all a chore: baking him meatloaf; dragging running jokes to death, flinching when he spoke to his mates on the phone, his voice changing into someone else’s, his laugh a spray of bullets— huh huh, huh huh, huh. Giving you suck, giving him head, cleaning the toilet.
They called in one day, the mates. They told him about the prostitutes they had been to in the Thailand ‘They like us Irish lads, cause we’re nice to them- the English guys abuse them an’ all. Terrible’. You were nestled in the crook of your Daddy’s elbow, sleeping. ‘Do they- yeah?’ he said, 'Fuck’s sake. Terrible’. Then they told him about one girl in particular, and it must have been a funny story, because he laughed that laugh, and you woke up. I wanted to take you out for a walk but he wanted to keep you and show you to his friends, so I went out alone. I had to leave you. Otherwise my milk would have tasted like metal, like boiled blood.
At the weekend I paint faces at children's parties. Today it's a posh-kids party. They are a boring bunch, demanding princesses and spider-men. None will be persuaded to be a goldfish, an alien, even a tiger; they are not taking advantage of the possibilities. I want to be home with you now, cooking you baby lunches, drawing pictures with you, or crawling around pretending to be a crocodile, but you spend the weekends with your daddy.
A girl with small, curled lips plonks down in front of me.
‘Do you get paid for this?’
‘Yes. What do you want to be?’
‘Em... A princess. With lots of sparkles, and can you do that thing you did on the other girl's eyes? The eyeliner and the sparkles? How much do you get paid?’
‘Enough to make me sit here and paint your face.’
‘When I grow up I'm going to get paid for everything I do. Sitting down, standing up, closing my eyes 'that'll be a hundred euro! '
She flips up her palm to demonstrate her anticipation of the hundred euros.
She has the chic-girl way of folding her hands over, flicking them at the wrist. Some adult she knows, maybe her mother, must find it funny or charming or cute, because she is expecting a reaction to that effect. When she doesn't get it, she goes on.
‘I'm going to have a pink Barbie car, a convertible, and everyone is going to want to marry me and I'll say ' You, you- not you- you, not you...' and they will follow me wherever I go. And I'm going to get liposuction and a face lift to make me look like a model.’
‘You are very pretty the way you are.’
We both know this is a lie. She glares at me, and I think of that expression people say- ‘children know’. I don't want to paint her. Not the nostrils, not the eyes. It's all too intimate suddenly.
‘I dream about it,’ she says, ‘I close my eyes and I simply dreeam about it!’
This is a disco-birthday party. The professional entertainer is here, hosting a dance-off at the other side of the room. The song coming out of the sound system is the current chart hit. It is about having sex in the bathroom and the kitchen and the bedroom and on the beach. It's a band of teenage girls I have seen interviewed on M.T.V. They said no man is going to walk over them, they said 'Sistas- take control!' The music is very loud. The children cheer and gyrate on the designated patch of floor. 'Don't you wish you had this, and this, and this- aha', sing the band. The kids sing along, they know the lyrics- 'Don't cha? Don't cha?' Don't ya want me bending over, bendin back? Don'tcha want ma diddies and my ass so hot?'
The princess face turns out all wrong, though I didn’t mean it to. The eyelids are blue, and lined with black, but not elegantly cattish like the other princesses'- something about the way I have turned the edges makes her look more like the evil stepmother. The coloured lips, the pink cheeks, the painted-on tiara, all concentrate her features into the centre of her fleshy face. She doesn't even glance in the mirror though.
‘I love this song!!!!’
She jumps off the chair and prances to where the other dancers are, thrusting her pelvis back and forth in time with the music. A small, allergy-ridden boy sits down and asks to be batman. Better than another spider man.
While I'm sponging yellow all over his crusting face, in preparation for the black bat that will go over the cheeks and nose, I decide I should probably get rid of the TV. I do not want you listening to these kinds of songs. I worry, though worry is useless, about what your Daddy is watching in front of you, whether he has women over while you are staying, whether you have pulled out the magazines from under his bed. I am afraid you will come back one Sunday with a bullet laugh.
We took a holiday, the three of us, in Spain. Your Daddy booked it for the day after the exams. He wanted to go to Scotland, where the sisters lived with husbands who, like the brothers, were all different versions of the father. I wanted sun and just us though, and I was almost crazy with exam stress and having just had a baby, so I won. My aunt lent us her holiday house. What I remember is warm evenings, you chuckling in your buggy, eating out of doors, children running in and out of houses and restaurants, parched fields, white houses, bad drivers.
At night you slept on a double bed, couch cushions penning you in, and we sat by the pool with candles lit and talked and drank wine and dangled our feet in the water, and made love on the cool tiles.
While your Daddy was putting you down one evening I stood by the water, in a new white dress. We had bought a bottle of bubbles that day to entertain you. I blew some up into the air; big, slow, wobbly ones at first, then streams of little ones that petered into dots. I couldn’t stop then, I blew more and more and more bubbles, dreading the bottle ending. I watched them turn slowly in the night air like glass planets, and they caught the light of our candles, vibrating with invisible colour, bouncing on the surface of the pool, trembling before they popped. I knew it was beautiful, I knew how beautiful. I knew all I should have known.
Your Daddy came out of the house. He had been watching me. ‘You looked so beautiful’, he said ‘In that white dress’. My chest hurt. ‘I wanted to take a picture with the digital camera’, he said, ‘but the memory was full’.
How can I account to you?
How can I explain that I loved your daddy then but now I don’t. That that was true and so is this. But then again, how could I ever have accounted for anything? For staying in that room with the morning light, and the three of us, and the laughing? For clutching at his shoes, begging him not to go, crying 'I love you, I love you', as though I didn't know we were well past such terms? For keeping things that way, or leaving you, or leaving him, or making sensible choices.
When you ask me what a man is what will I tell you? What will he tell you? When you are sneaking out to discos at the age of twelve, water bottles filled with vodka in your bag, how can I tell you what sort of a man to be? How can I say ‘Only make love when you are in love’, 'Be kind to people', 'Be happy', ‘Be true to yourself’, 'Dance like no one is watching'- all of that? What can I offer you, baby, with my terrible voice, my un-blue eyes?