Something is wrong. I know it straight away. I know it with the knowingness when you just know something, and you don’t know how you know it. The knowing lives inside me, without pictures, without words. But there are sounds. Mother’s sounds. Her voice. And other voices, deeper, scary. Mother is scared. Her heart is beating fast, thrumming in my ears, her breathing faster.

Suddenly, an enormous squeeze clutches me. It’s too tight. More follow. They feel claustrophobic and angry, unlike the warm, fuzzy rubs and hugs from Mother when she is overcome with love for me. The 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, and one follows the next more and more rapidly. Mother’s sounds are loud. Has something happened to us, something bad? The squeezes are even tighter. Mother isn’t stopping them. I want to stop them, but I don’t know how.

I’m moving now, moving away from the warm weightlessness that is my home, down a very narrow place. It’s slippery, and I can’t stop moving no matter how hard I try. My shoulders are squashed up towards my head. Many other, unfamiliar voices join mother’s. They sound scared or excited. I can’t tell which.

My body moves even further down the narrow place. Somehow, I don’t know how, I’m sure I’d see Mother’s face soon. I’m happy about it, looking forward to it. But as soon as I relax, rough hands grab my head and pull me quickly through the narrow place. My body gulps air. My legs and arms flail without my permission. A bright light hits my eyes. I can’t focus on anything, but I know the skin I feel beneath me belongs to Mother. Her sounds are 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 her hands on my body, 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 it’s coming from me. I am crying, yes, but it’s shocking. The actual sound of my crying, makes me cry even louder. I don’t remember being able to hear it before, and I’ve cried many times before. I wonder if others can hear me, too? If Mother can hear me? Will she come to me?

Mother doesn’t come. But another someone – like her – but with a different smell and sounds, come. She picks me up. She makes soothing sounds and gently sways me from side to side. It’s comforting, and I stop crying. I look up at her and see she’s smiling.

In her eyes, the thing that’s wrong with me recognises me in the reflection and smiles back. It’s much bigger than me and I’m glad it’s here. I feel safe now. It likes the nurse’s smile and smiles wider.

I focus on it and hardly hear her whispered words but understand that she has misunderstood my smile.

“You’re a lovely little boy, aren’t you? And so bright, I see, already smiling, and you just born. But poor little thing, your ma’s just a little baby herself. I wonder what’ll become of you?”


“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.


Mother is on the phone. She is walking back and forth in our small living room. Her hair is standing up even more than usual. She runs a distracted hand through it every now and then. She seems so alive. She is by turns talking very fast and then being very silent, listening to the other person speaking. Something is wrong. It has something to do with Uncle.

I am sitting between Conor and Mary on the red sofa, watching telly. Mother said we could watch cartoons. Conor and Mary are watching cartoons, but I prefer to watch Mother.

Something bad has happened to Uncle. He’s died. Mother’s conversation on the phone goes on for longer than I’ve ever seen. She cries and yells and then becomes quiet, watching us as she continues to listen to the other person talking. Her eyes move over us again and again, as though she is thinking about what to do with us. Conor and Mary don’t look at her, they’re watching telly.

When the phone call finally ends, Mother goes to sit on her chair at the table, resting her head in her hands. Her shoulders are shaking and I think she’s crying, but she’s quiet.

The front door buzzer goes and Conor gets up to answer it, his eyes staying fixed on the telly until the very last moment. Mother doesn’t move, nor does she look up when Grandmother walks into the room. Grandmother is bigger than Mother, but they look very similar. Grandmother’s hair is longer but just like Uncle’s, it’s a little curly. She seems angry and unhappy.

“Jesus, Moreen,” she says, “look at the state of the place, and the kids. Don’t you ever clean up?”

Conor walks past her and gets back on the sofa beside me, his eyes already glued to the telly again. Mother looks up. She looks like she has a cold.

Grandmother’s hands are on her hips. “Why are you so upset? He wasn’t your son. He was mine. I should be crying like you. But I can’t, can I? No, because I have to come here to sort you out. He tried, you know. He really tried to help you, but you’re such an ungrateful little cow, aren’t you? And now he’s gone, my beautiful son. Why he came here last night I’ll never know. What happened here? Did you fight with him, as usual? Why couldn’t you just love your brother.”

I don’t like the sound of Grandmother’s rough voice. The big darkness in me awakens again and stirs, but it doesn’t come out this time.

Mother doesn’t say anything. She’s looking at us, her eyes moving over us again, as she did earlier. She’s become like Conor; quiet, distant, drawn into herself.

Grandmother sighs and sits down on Conor’s chair at the table.

“Right, let’s get the kids clean first of all. Do you have hot water in this godforsaken place?”

Mother gets up. She moves slowly. She leaves the room. Moments later, the sound of running water comes from the bathroom.

Mother comes to stand in the doorway.

“Conor,” her voice sounds strange and soft, as though she’s lost a great battle. “Time for your bath.”

Conor gets up and follows Mother from the room, his eyes again remaining on the telly until the last moment.

Grandmother comes to sit in the empty space Conor has left on the sofa. She picks me up and gingerly holds me on her knees, staring at my face, unsmiling. Her eyes are sharp, like Uncle’s, but now she is squinting at me and only now do I see how shiny they are through her lashes. Suddenly, she turns me this way and that, really looking at me as though she’s seen something interesting on me. I can’t imagine what. She’s still not smiling, so it’s not something funny. Then, abruptly, she turns me around so that I’m sitting on her knees, facing the telly again.

Conor comes back. He takes Mary’s place as she slides from the sofa to follow Mother to the bathroom. Conor smells of clean soap. His face glistens and his wet hair has been combed neatly back, the longer bits tucked behind his ears. He’s wearing clean clothes that I have never seen before; a white T-shirt under a red hoodie, and jeans with proper socks and trainers. The clothes look new. I wonder where he got them from. He watches the telly again, fully absorbed as though he’d never left. I can feel Grandmother staring at him, but he doesn’t return her examination of him.

When Mary comes back into the room she, too, is clean from head to toe. Her hair, still wet, has been braided into two long braids that hang beside her head. Her face is gleaming and her eyes are sparkling. She’s dressed in pink tights under a pink dress with a grey woollen cardigan over the top, and white trainers, similar to Conor’s. She smiles and comes to sit beside Grandmother. I can’t stop staring at her. She looks like an angel.

Mother walks over and takes me from Grandmother’s outstretched arms. Grandmother is offering me as though I’m something foul. We go down the hallway to the bathroom. I already know I’m not going to like having a bath. I didn’t like it at the hospital and I was pretty sure nothing has changed since then. As always, I’m astonished to hear my own voice. As always, it’s piercing and loud and it hurts my ears, so I cry even louder.

Mother offers no sympathy. I’m unceremoniously stripped and dumped into the bath. Thankfully, the water only just covers my legs and it’s immediately lovely against my skin. I stop crying as Mother scoops the warm water over my body while holding my head upright with her other hand. I love the feeling of the soap suds on my body but when she tries to wash my hair, my loud voice erupts again and startles me into a crying fit. She ignores my loud screaming and finishes washing my hair. Then, she lifts me out of the bath and wraps me up in a big towel. I like the feeling of her attention on me, of her arms around me. I stop crying. She’s holding me close and making soft cooing sounds, whilst gently running her hand over my back. Even with the towel between her hand and my body, it’s a wonderful feeling. Her wet tears in my neck add to the warmth.

“God help me, help us, my darling Lee.” Mother’s voice is soft and sad, for my ears only. “I did love him. I really did, but I’m grateful he’s gone. Is that so wrong of me?”