Suddenly, an enormous squeeze clutches me. It’s too tight. More follow. They feel claustrophobic and angry somehow, unlike the warm, fuzzy rubs and hugs from Mother when she is suddenly overcome with love for me. These squeezes are much stronger. They feel serious and not loving at all. They are getting even tighter now, and more frequent. I want them to stop, but they do not stop. Why don’t they stop? It’s hurting now. One follows the next quicker and quicker. Mother’s sounds are loud. She is screaming. Has something happened to us, something bad? The squeezes are really tight, now, and getting tighter. Mother isn’t stopping them. I want to stop them but I don’t know how.
I’m moving, moving away from the warm weightlessness that was my home, down a very narrow place. It’s slippery, wet, and I can’t stop moving no matter how hard I try. I’m squeezed tighter than I ever imagined possible. My shoulders are squashed up towards my head. There are many other voices. Unfamiliar voices. The voices sound scared or excited, I cannot tell which.
Something is wrong. I know it straight away. I know it with the kind of knowingness when you just know something, and you don’t know how you know it. It was always only me and Mother. But now, another presence has made itself known. It is near me but I can’t feel it. I can only sense it. It is big, bigger than Mother or me. It is beyond our lives. I don’t know how I know that, but it is a sharp truth I will always know. The knowing lives inside me, without pictures, without words. But there are sounds. Earthly sounds. Mother’s sounds. Her voice. And other voices, deeper, scary. Mother is scared. Her heart is beating fast, her breathing more rapid.
My body moves even further down the narrow place. I don’t know how I know that I will see Mother’s face very soon. I’m happy about it, looking forward to it. But as soon as I start to relax, rough hands grab my head and pull me quickly through the narrow place. My body gulps air. My legs and arms flail. A bright light hits my eyes. I cannot focus on anything, but I know the skin I can feel beneath me belongs to Mother. I can hear her sounds. She sounds nearer, clearer and happy. She is making cooing sounds. Her soft hands touch me all over, as though she is checking that all of me is here, that I am safe. Just as I am getting used to the feeling of her hands on my body and her skin beneath me and the bright lights around me, other, rougher hands take me away from her. I feel instantly cold, then. Peculiar, pungent smells are all around me. I can hear a strange sound and realise that it’s coming from me. I am crying, yes, but I am astonished that I can hear the actual sound of my crying. I don’t remember being able to hear it before and I know that I have cried many times. I wonder if others can hear it too, if Mother can hear it. Will she come to me? Mother doesn’t come. But another someone comes – like her, but with a different smell and sounds. She picks me up. She makes soothing sounds and gently sways with me from side to side. It’s comforting. I stop crying. I look up at her and see that she is smiling.
“You poor little thing,” she whispers. “What will become of you? Your ma’s just a little baby herself.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Conor O’Reilly, would you just take this bloody child to the other room. I cannot stand his constant screaming any longer.”
Mother’s words are aimed at me. Her words hurt. But there is a painful, gnawing, empty feeling inside me that hurts even more. I don’t understand why Mother doesn’t help me. I know she can take it away. But she has been lying on the small red sofa for days now. Conor and Mary have tried to take care of me as best they can. But both still being so young they need looking after, themselves. Mary, especially, often cries with me. But Conor, being slightly older, is always quiet. He never cries, or laughs, or speaks.
Conor picks me up from the floor where I had been sitting, playing with the empty bottles until one broke and a shard of glass cut my finger. It hurts, but less than the empty feeling in my body. Red liquid is everywhere. It’s coming from my finger. Conor puts me down again. He puts his mouth over my finger and sucks the red stuff into his mouth. I stop crying and watch him. Conor’s blonde hair is standing on end, matted and unwashed. His blue eyes, like Mother’s, are closed. His face is screwed up in concentration. He sucks hard on my finger, holding my hand firmly to his mouth. But each time he pulls my finger from his mouth, the red stuff starts to flow again from the small wound. Mary, who is sitting next to me, has also stopped crying. Like me, she is watching Conor’s attempts to stop the bleeding. As though she suddenly remembers something, she gets up and waddles down the hallway, her nappy hanging full and low down her little legs, her dark hair bunched up from sleeping on it. I watch her go, wondering when I would be able to stand and walk, like her. She isn’t much older than me. Conor pays her no attention and goes back to sucking on my finger. The only sounds in our small living room are the telly and Mother’s soft snoring. It’s amazing that she could be so cross one moment and fast asleep the next. I wish I could do that. But the empty, gnawing pain in my stomach has often kept me awake.
Mary comes back into the room with a tiny piece of toilet paper. She offers it to Conor. He takes it and carefully puts it around my finger. The red stuff makes a big red mark on the white paper but at least it doesn’t flow anymore.
The doorbell buzzes, and Conor goes to answer it. Mary sits down beside me and holds my hand.
Uncle walks into the room with long strides, followed by Conor. “Jesus, it stinks in here,” he says, and quickly opens a window before moving to Mother. He shakes her shoulder but she doesn’t wake up. She just grumbles in her sleep.
Uncle brought the cold, fresh smells of outside into the room with him. Other smells came with him, too. The sharp smell of fresh alcohol and food smells that make all our tummies rumble. Uncle’s dark hair is short and clean and his blue eyes wild with an emotion I don’t understand.
“Conor,” says Uncle, “take the babes into the other room. I want to talk to your mother. And change their nappies if you can.”
Conor picks me up again and Mary follows behind as we make our way down the hallway to the bedroom we share with Mother. The room is much colder than the living room where the small heater lives. Mary crawls onto her small unmade mattress on the floor in the opposite corner. She tucks her teddy close to her body. Her lips, fingers, legs and feet are blue from the cold and she is shivering. Conor puts me down on Mother’s single bed, also unmade. The sheets and blankets are cold against my back and they smell funny.
Conor changes my nappy quickly. It feels immediately warmer having a dry nappy. The empty feeling in my tummy still hurts but now I can tolerate it more. Mary knows it’s her turn next and she gets up from her mattress and comes to stand next to Conor. He lifts her on Mother’s bed so that she lies next to me. She is quiet, clutching her teddy in one hand, her other hand holding mine. As soon as her new nappy is on, Mary draws Mother’s sheets and blankets around me and her. She lies close to me. I feel slightly warmer. Conor doesn’t wear a nappy anymore.
Conor leaves the room and I know he has gone to put the nappies in the bucket in the bathroom. But he comes back very quickly, with the nappies still in his hand, his face white, a frown between his eyes. He doesn’t say anything. He closes the door, puts the nappies on the floor next to Mother’s bed, and goes to sit on his own mattress against the far wall of the small room. He sits with his back against the cold wall, his head in his hands on his knees that he has drawn tight against his body.
Mary and I are quiet. We are watching him. He doesn’t move or look at us.
We listen to the sounds coming from the other room. Uncle’s voice; loud, demanding. Mother’s voice; speaking fast, rising as if she’s trying to defend herself. Sounds of a struggle, Mother screaming, something breaking, probably more bottles. A rhythmic banging sound and Mother’s low wailing, followed by Uncle’s sudden loud, piercing cry. Then, silence. Silence for a long time…
I cry as I wake up, the gnawing feeling in my body is overwhelming and making me feel quite ill. Mary wakes up and starts crying, too. Conor is still on his mattress but he must have fallen asleep as well because he is lying under his blankets. He gets up quickly when he hears us crying. His eyes are red and swollen.
The door flies open. Mother is standing in the doorway. She is swaying slightly. Her hair is a mess, she has a blue bruise on her eye and a raw swelling on her lower lip. Behind her, Uncle appears. His eyes are not so wild anymore. Instead, he is smiling.
“There he is, my little man. Just look how much you’ve grown.” He pushes past Mother into the room and picks me up. “We’re all starving, Moreen. Let’s get some food. My little man is hungry. What do you feed him these days?”
It feels like a feast day, all of us sitting in the warmer living room. Mother is sitting on the sofa with me at her breast, Uncle on the beanbag with a plate of steaming spaghetti, and Conor and Mary side by side at the small table in the corner. I know they’re enjoying themselves because they’re swinging their legs as they’re eating. Mother’s plate sits next to her on the sofa. She takes small, careful bites every now and then.
I’m not sure if we are a real family, or not. I’m not sure that I like Uncle. But at least Mother is awake now, and the horrid, empty feeling in my body is disappearing. I don’t want to drink any more milk. Mother puts me down next to her on the sofa. She picks up her plate of spaghetti. My eyelids are so heavy. I don’t want to sleep because I like the sounds of my family around me. I revel in the warmth of the room and the lovely full feeling in my tummy. I’m listening to the voices of Mother and Uncle talking as they’re eating.
“So, what are you going to do with the older two?” Uncle asks. “You can’t have them all here. I can’t support all of them. They’re not mine. And you better be right about Lee being mine because if I find out otherwise…”
Even though I’m so sleepy, something in my mind registers the words and the meaning behind them, somehow. The thing I know that is wrong with me, stirs. It feels like me, but not like me. It feels big, bigger than Uncle, and powerful and dark. It peeps out at Uncle. I hold my breath. But after a few moments, it slinks back inside. I breathe out. I’m relieved because I fear I could not control it once it came out fully. I know it is waiting. Waiting for blood, for souls. For when I’m bigger…