“Jesus, Conor O’Reilly, take this fekkin child away to the other room. His constant screaming’s doing my bloody head in.”
Mother’s words are about me. The sound of her words slices my ears. Her words spear my heart. But a painful, gnawing, empty feeling inside me hurts far more. I cry harder.
I don’t understand why Mother doesn’t help me. I know she can take away the pain. But she’s been lying on the small red sofa for days now. Conor and Mary have tried to take care of me as best they can. Mary, especially, often cries with me. But Conor is always quiet. He never cries, or laughs, or speaks.
I’d been sitting in front of the telly 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 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 dull. His blue eyes, like Mother’s, are closed. His face is screwed up in concentration. He sucks hard on my finger, clasping my hand to his mouth. But each time he pulls my finger from his mouth, blood flows again from the small wound.
Next to me, Mary has also stopped crying. Like me, she’s watching Conor. As though she suddenly remembers something, she gets up and waddles down the hallway. Her nappy hangs full and low down her little legs, and her dark hair is bunched up from sleeping on it. I watch her go, wondering when I’d 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 incredible how 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 often keeps 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. A big red mark appears on the white paper, but at least it doesn’t flow down my finger anymore. Mary sits on the floor beside me again and holds my hand while Conner goes to answer the doorbell that won’t stop ringing.
Uncle takes long strides into the room with Conor following behind. Uncle’s face wears a dark frown.
“Jesus, it stinks in here,” he says and 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. The sharp smell of fresh alcohol stings the air. But the food smells 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,” Uncle says, “take those babies into the other room. I wanna talk to your ma. And change their nappies.”
Conor picks me up, and Mary follows 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. Conor puts me down on Mother’s bed. The sheets and blankets are cold against my back, and they smell funny of old sweat and lack of life.
Conor changes my nappy quickly. I’m warmer in my dry nappy at once. While empty feeling in my tummy still hurts, now I can tolerate it more.
Mary knows it’s her turn next. She comes to stand next to Conor. He lifts her on Mother’s bed, so she lies next to me. She’s quiet, clutching her teddy in one hand, her other holding mine. As soon as her new nappy is on, Mary draws Mother’s sheets and blankets around us. She lies close to me and I feel slightly warmer. Conor doesn’t wear a nappy any more.
Conor leaves the room, and I know he’s gone to put the nappies in the bucket in the bathroom. But he comes back quickly, the nappies still in his hand. His face is white and frown sits between his eyes. He says nothing, closes the door, puts the nappies on the floor next to Mother’s bed, and goes to sit on his 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, he’s 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 in my body is excruciating and making me feel ill. Mary wakes up and starts crying, too. Conor is still on his mattress, but he must have fallen asleep because he’s 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, and she has a blue bruise on her eye and a raw swelling on her lower lip. Behind her, Uncle appears. His eyes aren’t wild anymore. Instead, he’s smiling.
“Here 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. Go. Order food. My little man’s hungry. What do you feed him these days?” he says as he tickles my tummy. But it just makes the horrid feeling there worse, and I cry more.
Uncle carries me on his hip and does a little dance down the hallway.
The heat in the front room pounces on me and invades my body. I stop crying.
Mother is at the door, collecting boxes of food from a delivery man. She’s put plates ready on the table.
It feels like a feast day, all of us sitting in the warmer living room. Mother is on the sofa with me at her breast, Uncle on the beanbag with a big slice of pizza on his plate, 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 eat. Mother’s plate sits next to her on the sofa. She takes small, careful bites now and then.
I’m not sure if we’re a real family, or not. I’m not sure I like Uncle. But at least Mother is awake now, and the sicky, empty feeling in my stomach is disappearing. I don’t want any more milk. Mother puts me down next to her on the sofa and picks up her plate.
My eyelids are heavy. But I don’t want to sleep because I like the sounds of my family around me and I don’t want to miss anything. The warmth of the room and the lovely full feeling in my tummy lulls me. I close my eyes and listen 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 sleepy, something in my mind registers the words and the meaning behind them, somehow. The thing that’s wrong with me, stirs. It feels like me, but not like me. It feels big, bigger than Uncle, bigger than our home, and powerful and dark. It peeps out at Uncle.