Phil Cummins – Mother Love

Phil Cummins is a Dublin-born academic and writer now living in County Kildare.

His short stories and essays have featured in various anthologies and literary magazines. His writing achievements include honourable mention (2020) and shortlist (2022) for the Fish Memoir Prize.


Mother Love

By Phil Cummins


He watched her from his hiding place as she stood in the doorway of their council house in her usual tattered plimsolls and floral-patterned housecoat, the same clothes she always wore from breakfast to bedtime. A spare-looking woman, Noreen Hanlon had the shadow of good-looking about her features, although her looks had long since been carved up by life and her once lustrous black hair was now tending towards an insipid grey. She clasped her ruddy hands tightly across her midriff as if holding herself together as she cast her gaze over the mean looking front garden, a scrubby patch of grass riddled with clover and jinny joes.

‘Georgie, come in now for your tea, love,’ she called out.

He started giggling away to himself and had to clamp his hands over his mouth.

‘Come in now for your mammy like a good boy.’

This, he’d decided, was his best hiding place ever.

‘Ah, stop this nonsense, Georgie. Don’t make me send Niall out to look for you,’ she said, her voice rising noticeably as she began to walk down towards the garden gate.

She’d often had to send his much older brother out to round him up. The odd time this would piss Niall off, especially if he’d just been in the middle of something really good on telly, and so he’d make sure to give Georgie a foot in the arse or a good clout on the back of the head when he finally found him, as he did last week when he’d rooted him out from a dustbin in the rubbish-strewn laneway that ran behind the back of the houses. ‘You’re after making me miss me Simpsons episode, you little bollox,’ grumbled Niall, hauling him back home that time by the lug of his ear. ‘Why can’t you just come home when you’re called the first time?’

Usually, though, Niall would do it good-humouredly. ‘Aren’t you the right funny little git,’ he’d hoot, as he playfully wrestled Georgie out from the coal shed or from under the Fogarty’s Leylandii hedge next door. ‘Come out here to me now you slippery little shagger,’ he roared with laughter another time as he dragged him by the ankles out from the inside of Barney’s piss-smelling kennel. This last thought made Georgie giggle again, thinking about how Niall would be swearing like a tinker trying to find him this time.

‘You get in here now, George Hanlon, or I’ll redden your feckin’ arse for you,’ his mother barked aloud now from the garden gate as her eyes nervously scanned the estate looking for any sign of her son.

He peered out through the little slit in the side of the cardboard box she’d picked up earlier at the back of the checkout counter in Tesco to bring the messages home in, an apple box suffused with the pleasant aroma of Granny Smiths. He’d snuck off out with it as soon as it was emptied and her back was turned, determined to find a good use for it. Staring out at her now, he noticed that she’d turned her gaze to the right, her attention focused towards the end of the street and some distant amorphous rumble. Her eyes seemed to narrow as the rumble got louder and her hands gripped the gate post, her knuckles whitening against the flaking black paint. Her head began to turn slowly and he followed her gaze as it slid unseeing past the front of his hiding place, the rumble morphing into a deafening growl as a big warm draught of air laced with the musty whiff of exhaust fumes came whooshing in under the edge of his box. His mother’s head had by now fully swiveled to the left, displaying a face on her like a thunderclap, tight-lipped with condemnation. Some deep instinct told him that now was probably the time to make his presence known. He stood up then, lifting the box off himself to materialise like a turtle from within its shell.

‘Howya, Mammy! Here I am,’ he called out, standing directly before her in the middle of the road, beaming. Her hands flew up to cover her mouth as if attempting to push the scream back in.

*

Seconds later she was reefing him along by the wrist up the street after her, stopping outside the Duggan’s house where a taxi had just parked. A prodigious lump of a man was awkwardly clambering out of the driver’s seat. Larry Duggan was all stomach, his huge gut straining against the buttons of his white shirt as it blebbed over his belted waistline like an icing bag. Belching loudly, he elbowed the door shut whilst rooting about inside a vinegary grease-soaked chip bag, displaying a yellowed armpit in the process.

‘Were you bloody well born stupid,’ his mother snapped, ‘flying up the road at that speed? You should be ashamed of yourself, Larry Duggan. You could’ve killed someone.’

‘I wasn’t goin’ that fast,’ said Duggan, shoveling a handful of chips into his face.

‘You were booting it, so you were. How a child hasn’t been run over yet because of a dangerous eejit like you, I don’t know.’

‘Ah, here now, take her handy, Noreen,’ muttered Duggan, his mouth still half full as he wiped his greasy fingers on the front of his shirt. He motioned with his head back towards the direction in which she’d come. ‘The road was clear. There was nobody on it.’

‘Are you quite sure about that?’

‘Well, not unless you’re talkin’ about the invisible man,’ he sniggered, his tone implying that she was in dire need of a sense of humour.

‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘do you see that cardboard box back there on the road, the one you very nearly ran right over?’

‘What about it?’ he sniffed, still munching away as he reached back into his nose bag for a battered onion ring to add to the enormous spare tyre hanging over his belt. ‘It’s just an auld box.’

‘And d’you see this little fella here?’ she said, hauling Georgie forward like a scabby-kneed rag doll, his scrawny wrist a mere twig in her iron grip.

‘There’s nothin’ wrong with me fuckin’ eyesight, woman! Of course I can see him. So what?’

‘Well, he was hiding under that auld box you almost flattened.’

Duggan’s hand stopped halfway to his mouth, the blood visibly draining from his face. As if suddenly poleaxed, his mouth sagged downwards like a loose flap to reveal a gobful of half-chewed chips. Georgie’s gaze followed the onion ring as it seemed to drop from Duggan’s hand towards the ground in slow motion.

‘Whaaa…?’ Duggan spluttered, his eyes suddenly very wide.

‘You’re not too lippy now, Larry… are you?’

‘Ah, Jaysus. I’m really sorry, Mrs. Hanlon. I had no idea…’

‘I’ve a good mind to call the Guards on you. Maybe get them to breathalyze you while they’re at it.’

‘Ah, there’s no need for you to do that Mrs. Hanlon. I honestly didn’t know your young lad was hidin’ under there. Should he even be out on his own?’

‘And just what do you mean by that?’ she snapped.

‘Ah, no, I didn’t mean anything. Are you all right, Georgie?’

‘You could’ve killed him, you thick gobshite,’ she spat.

‘I’m really sorry, Mrs. Hanlon. Listen, fair enough, I promise I’ll slow down nex…’

But she’d already turned on her heel and was stalking back down the street with her young son in tow. Georgie threw a quick glance back over his shoulder just in time to see the Duggan’s terrier emerge from the garden to commence nosing around at the fallen onion ring. Duggan himself just stood there trembling, hand to forehead, contemplating the potential shit show his life had very nearly just become. His bag of chips hung down limply by his side, forgotten.

*

‘You’re after putting the heart crossways in me, you little fecker!’ she screeched when she got him back home, her words quivering with delayed shock as she skelped the back of his bare legs before sending him upstairs to his room. He lay on his bed listening to her in the kitchen below, banging and clattering pots and drawers, venting at the walls. Later that evening she poured him a bath and set to work scrubbing him inside and out using a wet dishcloth and bar of soap, spending an inordinate amount of time around his neck and behind his ears, attempting, it seemed, to wash the bouldness right out of his skin.

‘I’m sorry, Mammy,’ he said as she pulled on his pyjamas and packed him back off to bed without his tea. ‘I’ll be a good boy in the future, I promise.’

He noticed that she was crying as she turned off his bedroom light without saying goodnight to him, the sight of her tears following him down into sleep.

*

At some point in the night, still deep in sleep, he dreamt he caught the familiar scent of her soapy skin smell and could feel the graze of her fingertips as she brushed aside his fringe. And then she was whispering softly to him, her warm breath tickling his cheek, and he sensed a bit of give in the toughness of her.

‘What am I going to do with you, Georgie pet? Don’t you ever give me a fright like that again. No more hiding games, d’you hear me? You’ll end up giving your poor mammy a heart attack and then who’d look after her special little lad?’

He imagined then that he felt the soft touch of her lips against his forehead which caused a warm pleasant sensation to unfurl in his chest and tummy, and he thought this is what it must feel like to be safe and hidden high up inside a bird’s nest. And somehow he knew that if he awoke in the night, as he sometimes did, there’d be a mug of milk and two toasted cheese sandwiches left beside his bed for him.

 

 

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