Deirdre Sullivan is from Galway. She studied Legal Science and French at NUI Galway and completed an MA in Drama and Theatre Studies before going on to do a postgraduate course in Primary Education in Coláiste Mhuire Marino. She currently lives in Dublin, where she is teaching and working on her next book. Improper Order is a sequel to Prim Improper, which was shortlisted for the CBI/Bisto Book of the Year Award 2010–11
By Deirdre Sullivan
Once upon a time there was a mermaid. She had pale, egglike eyes and dank scaly hair. Her hands were a little dry but she didn’t notice because they had always soaked in salty ocean water. She smelt of seaweed, rust and something algal. Or maybe fungal. That is how she was.
She liked to spend her days tangling and untangling her long and salty tresses, tasting different tastes, listening to all the different sounds and picking tiny lice from in between the intricate scaling patterning her tail which was magnificent, very thick and powerful. A flick of it could break a neck or wave. She also liked to make up little songs. Her oily clicky voice smoothed and calmed its way across the waves. Most of the time the mermaid was alone.
One shiny evening she was lying on the smooth rocks beneath the surface of the water letting her heavy bloom of hair bubble and breathe around her like decomposing flotsam. The sea was dark and so the sky was dark. Everything was comfortable and mild. And once upon a time there was a fire.
The fire was made up of many colours: dark and rubber red and wooden orange, sparkle copper-nail green to shake and shine. It liked to eat. It liked to make things simple. It was young and it was strong and people kept giving it things to eat. If fires can be happy, it was so.
The mermaid heard people rumbling and shaking things around her. She liked to be cold and hot at the same time as she lay half in half out of water and the world. There was a glow she felt inside her face and stomach it made a sound that frightened her. she suddenly decided to explore the banks at some point. Having reached that decision she licked a barnacle. It tasted like its shape.
The fire was hungry and it hurt. It had no wood to crumble only rubbishy little items, which were not very satisfactory at all really but they were all it had. No one picked up driftwood to feed it because it was a walk away and this inconvenienced the fire terribly. The hungry fire spat out bits of fluids left in cans and shrank crisp packages to little shrivelled melts. Eventually it glowed and lessened by itself. It had been abandoned and now it was alone.
The mermaid saw the glow that looked like she felt and knew it was important. She approached it as cautiously and quietly as one can when hampered by an enormous meaty tail, which collected sand as it flapped wetly round. Outside the water, she did not like her body. It was impractical and overlarge. The sealice scuttled delicately through the kelp and dilisk on the shore. They knew that they belonged to both places and were content, and didn’t ask for more than rot and comfort, places to lay eggs and things to eat.
The mermaid’s arms were tired, her fingernails were full of grainy sand, it hurt her flesh here, and did not slip away with a wrist flick or finger-wiggle. She didn’t really understand why not. Closer to the glow was warm and softer, a dying kind of light, like she was used to shimmering down the deep deep downy water. The warmth was strange, and not like warmth at all that she was used to. It was the kind of warmth that only touched one side of you, and felt like it could hurt if it got stronger. It was not soft and strong and pulsing even. But it was strange and lovely and it hissed with sounds she hadn’t heard before. Her forearms were aching when she reached the fire’s side. Her tail splashed drips that made it hiss acidic and outraged. It did not like the wet of her at all, this water-creature, all her flop and shadow. It smoked and steamed at her, it fizzled down, it did not fizzle out.
The mermaid blinked in misted fascination. Her eyes were drying up to shelly glass. She needed salty water now to soothe them, she squeezed her hair, and thus released a wave, that slickered down her foreign ocean face like ointment. She smoothed her tail and she began to sing.
The song that she sang was from a time when mermaids would moan on rocks, when seas were free of sailors, and full-throated they could set their voices free without a care. It was a song about a softness and a weakness that was something strong and powerful as well. It echoed over the sand like a cow’s bellow, or a cat’s miaow, the purest strangest notes of satisfaction built and swelled and ebbed and ebbed and flowed. Buoyed by the music she rocked and wallowed. Her hair swung out, saline and dry. The fire saw it’s chance, and gobbled it greedily. She felt it spark and knew and understood exactly what it wanted. The mermaid grabbed a fist of kindling hair. And pulled and pulled it out and gave it to him. She felt the balding ache of air on skin unfinished. The ache of flames she’d never get to taste. In the fire, several sea-lice crackled. Little sacrifices.
The fire grew again. It’s new diet was very nourishing; full of plumping minerals, crackling twigs and beneficial fats. Crackly things, the kind it liked to vanquish. It hoped there would be more oceanic stuff . To gorge on soon. It rose and dipped and listened to the mermaid.
The mermaid was still singing, about the silent mermaids who were mostly made of wood and lived on ships. It was a traditional song of mermaids, but every time you sang it, the words tended to change a bit. This time it was about a wooden mermaid who fell in love with a sailor and it was hard but ended up okay because they were both mostly made of carbon.
She pulled more hair out, strand by moonlit strand until the sky began to pale and widen with the morning. The the mermaid, leaving deeply tail-shaped grooves upon the shore, slowly made her way back down the strand. Before she moved she placed her fingers softly in the somewhat glowing ash. She raised them to her mouth. It tasted dangerous.
Reaching the water, her head plucked clean as chickens, she began to descend with a flip of her magnificent tail. Spiralling down, she felt streamlined and stinging.
The fire was silent, eating up the last pieces of nutrient. It didn’t quite know how to take her departure. Suddenly, it began to rain. The raindrops tasted saltier than sweet and everything bleached and faded out into the dawn.
Mother of Pearl
By Deirdre Sullivan
Finding a lump is always terrifying. Kate found hers because her breast started to hurt. Like when you have a spot coming, a really big and painful spot. Only inside of her. Incubating. It was round and hard and moved around the inside of her breast whenever she poked it. She tried not to poke it, because it felt quite wrong, like something that you shouldn’t do. It ached a little, leaving small and painful tunnels in its wake. She rang the doctor and made an appointment. Then she sat on the sofa and tried not to think about it. But her hand kept searching for it, poking at it, remembering that something there was wrong. The lump was in her slightly bigger breast, the one that’s near the heart. “They get a little bigger”, her mother had told her once when she felt freakish “Because of the blood supply. But people rarely notice.”
She’d never thought to confirm that information, never looked it up or asked a friend. It felt like it could be right and also made her feel a little better. She didn’t need any more than that. People rarely do. But now there was a lump and the quarter cup sized difference suddenly seemed menacing, like the extra flesh was some sort of lump-oven, a warning sign of horrid things to come.
The doctor felt her up and told her there was nothing to worry about. It moved around, was regularly shaped, and probably fine. But that they’d get an ultrasound, in case. In case of cancer was what was unsaid. Four weeks she waited, going to work, going to the gym, doing things with friends. Telling no one but her mum for some reason she couldn’t really fathom. An ultrasound is a strange thing when you aren’t going to have a baby. There is still a little darker blob with grey as pencil wavy gloom around it, but no one says “oh, look at it’s little legs” or gives you a photo to take home and show to people and your family. There was something about the lump the ultrasound technician didn’t like. “I don’t like the look of it” she said, her brow furrowed. Her eyebrows were drawn on, but they still expressed concern more than adequately. It is not nice to be told that someone doesn’t like the look of something growing in your body. A cluster of somethings, now is what it looked like. The brows went down. “We’ll have to get that out”
Kate was in a gown made of paper. She was scared of anesthetic because she had read a magazine article about people who it didn’t work properly on. They seem to pass out, but really they are only paralysed, and they can feel everything and hear everything but they cannot move and nobody can tell. On the trolley she thought about that article, she’d read it in her granny’s as a child. It had been with her through appendicitis, the baby and endoscopy. Every medical procedure she had had was tinted by the words that Kate had read, while granny and her mum drank tea and ate rich tea biscuits spread with butter. She could remember the thin feel of the pages, the crackle and the cheap and shiny ink, the being scared and looking up at legs. There were no legs to look up at now, only chests with masks on top and arms at the sides. They put a mask on her face and she breathed in and counted down.
When Kate was a little girl, she had gone on holiday to the seaside. Her mum was from the seaside, but she moved inland after she met Kate’s dad and they got married. The towels they lay on were grainy from the sand, but warm and soft. They didn’t wash them everyday, but always hung them up to dry them out. Kate used to press her face into the towels and breathe in and out the sand and salt water. Sometimes her dad would hold her head under the water till she stopped struggling. Ducking, it was called. They used to do that to witches back in the day. “Your mother is a witch” her dad would say “Are you one too? Are you my little witch?” and he would duck her. And she would feel scared but also safe, because he’d never hurt her, not her dad. He was tall and had hairs on his belly and in his ears and nose. His swimming togs were blue with one red stripe. Under the water, everything was still. She must have been near drowning once or twice of course she must, but she remembers feeling really safe there. In her recollections Kate never noticed that she couldn’t breathe.
Out of the room, into another. Kate is staying overnight. Last time she stayed here her baby died and they had to take it out. It was a different ward in the same place. It smells the same but sounds a little different. Twenty-seven weeks was when Kate’s baby died. It had had a heart beat, then it didn’t. She had to wait two more weeks before she was induced. She was supposed to go into labour spontaneously during that time, because her baby was dead and her body should have known that, kicked it out. It chose to clutch the baby close instead, for hours she was pushing, getting ointmented and greased and poked and prodded and told what to do until finally they opened up her womb and took it out of her that way instead. Kate didn’t care at that stage, she felt numb. When she went back to work, when people called round asking how she was she heard and dealt and answered through a veil, an abstract thing around her porous enough to let her move, respond and breathe and do, but the exterior was quite impermeable. You could not touch Kate now anymore, even if you did it wasn’t really Kate that you were touching. After the baby, people brought her lucozade and grapes and magazines. After the baby people said things to her and moved their heads and touched her with their hands. They weren’t here now. She didn’t want anyone to be here. Kate was thirsty so she drank some water. Then she closed her eyes and opened them again. The curtains around her bed were closed, but light filtered in through the tops of them and through the thin green fabric. It was almost like being in a pretend forest.
The surgeon who she’d never met before- her consultant was on holidays or something, away was all they’d said- looked like he was dressed up as a surgeon for Halloween. He had broad shoulders and a stocky build. Stubble peppered his face, not just his cheeks but all the way up to almost his temples. His incisors were a little bit too short for all his other teeth and it gave his face the look of a malicious toddler. His voice was surprisingly gentle, she had expected a rumbly kind of gurgle. “The procedure was successful. However, there was something…” He didn’t seem to quite know how to finish.
“Something?” she echoed feeling her heart press out and zoom in.
“yes” he nodded. His adam’s apple bobbing like a child’s boat mid-splash. She wondered if it would feel as hard and round as her lump had beneath her fingers. Her breast still hurt, but now it was a different sort of pain. He was talking now, saying something about calcification. And tiny irritants.
Kate scratched the underside of her bandaged breast. Sweat was pooling there and she couldn’t understand what he was saying. Individually, the words were comprehensible, but interspersed with staccato ums and ehs. A distinct lack of fluency, of flow. All in little bits, shattered. Kate can’t begin to assemble them. She would not have the least idea how to go about it.
“What, like a sack of barley?”
It occurs to her that she should have said flour. Barley does not come in sacks at all. It’s stack of barley isn’t it, the dance? And still he’s talking, fiddling with something in his pocket. He didn’t mean a sack as in a sack. A sac of cells, he meant. A sac of special cells. The distinction escapes Kate so he trails off with a low “we thought you might want it..”
“Want what? The lump?”
“It isn’t just a lump…” and from his pocket, hairy face produces a perfectly round, perfectly white, perfectly iridescent thing. A pearl. It is warm from his hand. She hopes he wasn’t sweaty. Sweat damages pearls. Pearls do not like acidic things. They must be carefully kept and carefully cleaned. Kate possesses a necklace made of pearls, one her granny often wore before she died. She keeps it very well, but rarely wears it. Pearls are so fragile. She would hate to hurt them, break their string or melt them with perfume or unmoist air. The pearl is weighty- it fits exactly into the palm of her hand, obscuring the life line, the love line, and all the other lines that we don’t think about. As long as we’re alive and we have love, the others seem inconsequential. The surgeon is still there..
“And there are more..”
“Six or maybe seven. Just growing…we didn’t like to…disturb them”
“We didn’t know. We didn’t think we should. Do. Anything. Until we had your consent. Because. Because…they’re lovely”
He smiles. Kate blinks. The shaft of light where the curtains do not meet is very bright indeed all of a sudden. She tells him she would like some time to think about his words. Men always think the things they say matter, are important. He nods gravely and swooshes off to tell somebody else important things.
When the baby came, she got to see it too. It had a tooth. A little one, to the left of the bottom row. So small and white. A pearleen she called it. There was hair as well, wispy but surprisingly thick. And soft. Her baby’s hair was soft. It looked a little like its father and a lot like all the other babies Kate had seen. Only paler. Its fingernails had a sort of cloudy sheen, as if it were wearing subtle, job-interview nail-polish. Her baby was a girl. A little she. Kate’s fist around the pearl tightened. Little glimmers of it through her fingers. It was enormous, for a pearl. Her breast itched and she thought about the treasure trove within. Six or maybe seven little lumps. Innocence was written on the grave. You couldn’t give that name to a living child, Kate’s mother had said, a bit dismissively. “Well, luckily my child was born dead” then Kate had snapped and that had shut her up. The pearl left resting on the pillow, Kate prodded at her milkless breast. She had not lactated before or after the baby was born. Her breasts had gotten bigger, had stayed bigger. But not a drop of milk had they eked out. She felt a cluster of small nubbins, bunched together. Puppies in a pile, asleep and growing. Wasn’t that unusual for pearls? Part of what made them special was their one-at-a-time uniqueness, softly growing on the tongues of oysters. Well, not exactly tongues. She placed the pearl on the bedside locker, wrapped in a nightie so it wouldn’t roll. It was roughly the size of a ping-pong ball. There was a softness to the way it caught the light. It nestled in the folds of artificial silk like an egg. A precious egg of some sort. And a clutch more to follow, to be hatched.
Kate’s phone buzzed and then it buzzed again. It was her mother.
She took the call
“They said it was benign”