Barbara McKeon has had over forty short stories published in newspapers, magazines and broadcast on radio, and she has had 11 radio plays and 3 television dramas produced by RTE. Other broadcasts include many Sunday Miscellany contributions. She is currently working on a novel. Barbara worked most of her life in journalism, primarily the Irish Press. In the 1990s lived in Rio de Janiero and Montevideo, where she taught English, and in the 1980s she worked in the UN in New York. She married and now lives near Kinvara, Co Galway.
A Short Story by Barbara McKeon
Here it comes, that awful sinking feeling. Like that feeling you get when you dread something happening. My insides are turning over like guts spewing out of a slaughtered pig. Now the sweating is going to start. Sometimes it’s so ferocious so I have to throw off the duvet to try and cool down. Then the sweat turns cold, covering my body like a wet sheet.
Bart is sleeping beside me oblivious of my discomfort, as he has been most of our married life. He is cocooned in the depth of his nocturnal hibernation, grunting and snorting like a subterranean mammoth. The last mammoth died off thousands of years ago but this one survived, presumably because he keeps the house so cold. There are times when I’m actually grateful for a hot flush.
Why can’t they invent something to make menopause bearable? Like the Pill stops pregnancy or aspirin stops a headache. Don’t talk to me about herbal remedies. I’ve tried them all – black cohosh that American Indian squaws swear by, stuff Japanese and Chinese women have used since Buddha was a babby, even common or garden sage is supposed to work wonders. The only wonder to me is how people get away with selling that rubbish. But what does it matter, middle-aged women aren’t important. We are invisible. We’re only good for providing meals, keeping the house clean, and at election time when our votes are needed.
Jesus, I could warm the house with all the heat my body is generating. Now that’s something some genius could put their mind to. The Change was what it was called before we all got politically correct and started calling things by their proper name. It’s not a willy, it’s a penis. It’s not ‘down there’, it’s a vagina. But it bloody well is a change – it’s more than a change, it’s the end. The end of me as a woman.
Ha! That ended for me a long time ago. That ended for me when Bart took up with ‘her’. He went with her one drunken night and got her pregnant. She had a girl for him. And wasn’t he so pleased with himself, didn’t he have another go and next time she had a boy for him. Well, a man isn’t a man unless he proves his virility and as I was a complete failure in that department, he had to go shopping elsewhere. So there he is now, father of two teenage children he won’t admit to but delights in knowing they exist. Every dog in the village knows they’re his kids. Why didn’t you go the whole hog and shack up with her, says I, knowing full well that would be the last thing he’d do on account of the Mammy.
I should have left long ago but it’s too late now. Years too late. Who’d look after his mother? Fat chance his sister’d come and do that, even though she’s a widow. The cute hoor uses her grandchildren as her excuse to stay above in Dublin, and the Mammy approves of that. Whereas I, having no children, have no excuse not to devote what’s left of my pathetic life to my crippled mother-in-law.
After three miscarriages I lost hope of ever having a child of my own. What would it have been like, my own child to care for, instead of a crippled old woman who prays daily for death? And now my body is closing down. Menopause, the end of a woman’s menses. All those years of monthly menstruations. Rivers of blood flowing nowhere.
God, I’m so tired. If only I could stop sweating and get back to sleep. It’s black as hell tonight. No moon, no starlight. I like to leave the curtains open a chink to let some night light in. But he always wants the heavy curtains drawn tight because he hates the morning light. Morning light and hangovers don’t mix. In this blackened room the night is a tomb.
Oh-oh, your man’s coming to. Time for his midnight piss. That’s it, heaves around as much as possible hauling his bulk out of the bed. Plods down the hall to the bathroom. Doesn’t flush the toilet in case he wakes the Mammy. Plods back to bed. Mattress sags under him. And off back to the Land of Nod in ten seconds. Never crosses his mind that I’m lying here wide awake, watching him through closed eyes.
The Mammy’ll leave us this house, but you can be sure his sister will want her cut. The land was sold years ago when Bart’s father died. Maybe she has a few bob stashed away in the bank or under that bed she never leaves. What Bart earns from the county council he spends supporting the drinks industry. How can a man spend every evening of his life and the whole of the weekend from the minute the pubs open sitting at the bar talking pure shite, and never think that he wasted his life?
There was a fella before Bart. If only …
I remember so well the night I met him. In a pub on Quay Street. I used to see him around the town and one evening we got talking. He was a lovely fella. He said I had a pretty smile. I said he had lovely teeth. That made us laugh, then one thing led to another. We went back to his flat and next I knew we were doing it. Afterwards he said he was sorry he couldn’t see me again, he liked me well enough, he said, only he had a girl he was doing a steady line with. Wasn’t I a desperate eegit, thinking a fella like that wouldn’t have a steady girlfriend. I started to cry. He was very nice and put his arm around me and said how sorry he was, and that if he hadn’t already got a girl he’d definitely be interested in me. Then he gave me a little present to cheer me up; a little ornament of a prancing horse that was on the mantelpiece. He remembered I’d said earlier I liked horses. That gave me hope, that little porcelain horse. Hope that maybe someday he’d break up with the steady girlfriend and remember me. Ha! Some hope that was. He married the girl and they emigrated to Australia.
I made so many mistakes in my life, so many wrong choices. I was never as clever as I thought I was. I began to accept half measures as my due portion. So when Bart asked me out, I said yes. I met him at a dance in the GAA club that I’d gone to with one of the girls I shared a flat with. It was pissing rain that night. I went out with him for over two years. We used to do it in the back seat of his Fiat because he couldn’t take me home on account of living with his mother. The fellow I was mad about was long gone and taken my heart with him, so when Bart asked me to marry him, I thought it’s as well him as anyone else. I didn’t love Bart but I was fond of him and he seemed genuinely in love with me. And I suppose he was until after he realised I was never going to give him a child.
Then he got Teresa Barrett up the pole and his life was complete. I should have walked away then. Why didn’t I? Why didn’t I leave him when he had sex with another woman and got her pregnant, not just once but twice?
But where would I go? Back to Galway city and try and get a job? Doing what, waitressing, cleaning, working in a shop? There was no work going. If things were in a bad way all over the country, we were even worse off in the west. Go back to my parents and admit I had failed in my marriage? I couldn’t leave because that’s the way things were back then.
When I think of all the bad choices I made. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes, but did I? Jesus no, I only fucked up even more. Always thinking I was cleverer than I was. As for this snoring lump beside me, why did I marry him? Because he asked me. Pure and simple. I said yes because I couldn’t have the fella I wanted, and because of all that hurt and loneliness I never saw the real reason Bart asked me to marry him. He wanted someone who’d look after him as his mammy was getting on in years. Someone who’d give the mammy grandchildren. I was in my later thirties by then, time was passing me by. I thought no man would ever ask me to marry, that I’d be left on my own, a spinster. Nothing had ever come of the few relationships I did have. None of them had marriage in mind. They saw me for what I was, a lonely single girl they could have sex with.
Ah fuck it – excuses, they’re all excuses. I just didn’t have the guts. I should have left when I still had a chance to make something of my life. Ha! But how could I walk out on his mother. Who the hell else would look after her?
Will you shut up snoring! Give me some bloody peace. How can I operate like a normal human being when I’m half dead from tiredness! All day long spent at the beck and call of a crippled old woman. God love her, it’s not her fault but I wish the Angel Gabriel would come and relieve her of her suffering.
I should get up and make a cup of tea. No sense lying here with mad thoughts coursing through my head. Not that I can sleep anyway with those bloody pigsty noises right into my ear. But she’d probably hear me moving about and want to know what I’m doing up. Then she’d want a cup of tea too, ‘cos God knows she gets even less sleep than I do.
What if I end up like her. Who’ll look after me?
Isn’t it bad enough for her, poor creature, that she’s left crippled from the stroke without me feeling sorry for meself. Is it the law that I’ll get a stroke too? No, it isn’t, so shut up feeling sorry for yourself and think of her that can’t do anything for herself except count the hours till she dies.
That’s another thing that never concerns you in your youth; death. That thought scares me more than anything else; the eternal nothingness of death.
Not that she’s afraid of death. Oh no, she and Fr McDonogh have taken care of that. The Mammy is going first class to the hereafter where her soul will rest in the bosom of Our Lord for all eternity. I wish to Christ I could believe that. Because that’s the thought that torments me most in the black of the night, in the long hours I lie awake in this nocturnal tomb; where do I go when I die? When my life is snuffed out for all eternity.
It’s not so much death that frightens me; it’s the idea of eternity. The black infinity of eternity. The never-endingness of eternity. Nothingness that never, ever ends.
What gets me is why women have to go through the suffering of menopause. Why put us through the hell of hot flushes and night sweats that do nothing but make us miserable, exhausted, sexless, useless. No, I am useful; I can look after an ailing cripple of a mother-in-law and I can cook and keep house for her son. And I can vote.
I wonder where that little horse ornament is? I know I still have it somewhere. Ah yes, it’s on the window sill in the spare room. It was in the dining room but Bart bumped into the dresser when he was langers and it fell off and cracked. I glued it together and put it out of harm’s way in the spare room. He’s still prancing, kicking his hooves up in some invisible meadow. I hope that fella’s doing well in Australia, with a nice family and all.
I think it’s easing off. It is, thank God. I’ve stopped sweating at long bloody last. Let me just get comfortable, and slip into the arms of Morpheus. Feck! It’s already getting light; that means I have to be up in an hour or so. I’ll just lie here and watch the sun come up, just as it has since the dawn of time, and will continue to do until it burns itself out.