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Holiday times and weekends were busiest, because motorway traffic was at it’s heaviest.    Eileen came out to the garden with the car keys in her hands and kissed Tom on the cheek.

“I don’t know how you can stand it,” he said as he settled down into a deck chair and lifted his face to the sun.   “I’m just glad it’s not me.”

Eileen laughed, she didn’t mind.   She enjoyed it.

“Each to their own.”  she said, putting on her Polaroid’s.  “They’ll be all out to-day.”

“Drive carefully love.”  said Tom.

But he knew she would.    She was a Motorway Momma.


Mark was hot and tired and fed up being stuck in the car.

“I spy with my little eye,” he said “something beginning with… with… with…with q!”

“Shut up Mark” said Fergus.

“Do you give up?” Mark asked, “do you give up?”

“Yes,” said Mammy, “I give up.   What is it?”

“Daddy’s head!”

“That doesn’t begin with “q”!”  sneered Katie.

“You’re stupid.” Said Fergus.

Tears sprang into Mark’s  eyes.   He blinked and sniffed and lowered his head and started to kick the seat in front.

“Stop kicking,” snapped Daddy, “I’m trying to drive.”

Mark wriggled.

“You’re scrooging me up.” complained Katie and gave him a shove.   Mark shoved her back. She fell against Fergus.   Fergus shoved Katie.  Katie fell over on Mark.   Mark squealed. Katie gave him a dig with her elbow.

“If you don’t stop fighting this very minute,” roared Daddy, “I’ll pull over and leave the lot of you on the side of the road.”

Mark knelt up on the seat and stared out the back window.   He watched the old Volkswagen that was following them.  It was dull-duckety green and a lady was driving, a Mammy.   Mark knew she was a Mammy because she had Mammy hair and Mammy clothes.     The lady waved at him.   He ducked his head shyly but, when he looked again, she wiggled her fingers.   Mark laughed and wiggled his fingers too.   The Mammy-lady laughed.

“There’s a lady waving at me.” he announced.

No one paid any attention.

Eileen watched the little boy with the tear-stained cheeks.   She was in a dilemma.   She had finished her quota for the day and she knew she shouldn’t go on but, he looked so sad and she knew, just by looking at him, that he was ready for the gifts she could give.      Motorway Mommas recognise open hearts, always.  What harm would there be in doing a few extra?   She wiggled her fingers at the little boy again and made the sign.

Mark saw the Mammy-lady wiggle her fingers and then something peculiar happened.   The old Volkswagen shimmered.   It changed from dull-duckety green to bright emerald.   Then it melted onto the road.  The colour spread and spread ’till it covered the motorway and turned it into a lush, grassy field, hedged with gorse-bloom.  Daddy’s  car melted as well and Mark found himself standing up to his ankles in grass with the  wind ruffling his hair.   There was a rumbling noise that shook the ground.   Then he saw them galloping through a gap in the gorse.   Twenty, glorious, white horses, tossing their manes and whinnying his name.  Somehow Mark wasn’t surprised.

“Coming for a ride?” neighed the mare with the longest white mane and a smile in her eye.

She went down on her knees and bowed her head so that Mark could climb on her back.

“Ready?”  she asked.

“Yes, ready” said Mark.

They set off at a trot then broke into a canter.  It was wonderful, Mark could see everything.  The purple-brown mountains with the white ribbon waterfalls, the laughing brown river and way, way in the distance the silver-blue gleam of a lake.

“Here comes the rain.” the white horses neighed, “Here comes the rain.”

As the first drops fell, the horses broke into a gallop.   Mark hunched his shoulders and drew in his head like a tortoise.  But the rain was delicious.   It felt lovely and warm and when he licked it, the raindrops  tasted like lemonade.   They galloped and galloped and galloped  and galloped under the roiling black clouds.   And, when they arrived at the lake, there was a loud clap of thunder and lightening zig-zagged through the sky.    Mark was a little bit frightened now and he squeezed his eyes closed and clutched so hard on the mane that it hurt his hand.

“Open your eyes” neighed the white mare. “you might even enjoy it!”

Mark opened his eyes.

Now they were galloping over the lake, splashing up water to join with the rain.    The air seemed filled with showers of diamonds and they smelt of magic and mystery and wonderfulness.   And when the thunder clapped the rain diamonds glowed in a myriad  shades of summer and  sent little waves prancing on to the beach.   And when the lightening zig-zagged the rain-diamonds glittered in a myriad shades of flame and of fire.   And when the rain-diamonds fell on his skin each one felt entirely different.   He’d never liked raindrops before.    Now he drank them and smelt them and heard them and felt them.   They soaked through his clothes and they soaked through his hair, they soaked through his skin they soaked into his bones and his mind, he was rain through and through.   Through and through.

When they reached the farther shore of the lake the horses slowed down, the clouds melted away, the sun shone again and all round him were rainbows.   Rainbows leaped  from the rippling  lake,   they  dappled the horses,  they draped over the furze and they snuggled Mark up in a warm rainbow cloak.

“Remember,” the white mare whinnied, “Remember you rode the rain-horses.  “Remember, remember,  remember….”

“Were you asleep Mark?” asked Mammy.

“No.” he replied.   “I rode the rain horses.”

“You were dreaming.” said Katie.

Mark was still looking out the rear window.   The dull-duckety Volkswagen was still driving behind them.   The Mammy-lady laughed and wiggled her fingers and, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the rain-horses gallop away and he knew for sure that he hadn’t been dreaming.


“You’re very late ….” said Tom.

” There was so much to do,” sighed Eileen, “It’s the holidays…. ”

“How many did you do?


“You know that’s too much.”

“I know but….” Eileen flopped into a chair, “if you’d seen their little faces… and besides I gave them “Rain Horses””

“But fifteen is the max…. and you know how much it takes out of you!”

“I can handle it.”


Deirdre hated being the youngest.   The others were old enough to go off with their friends but she was stuck in the back of the car while her parents sat in the front talking about boring things or listening to boring music.   She hated the Sunday drive.  She knelt on the back seat and stared out.   A dull-duckety, battered old car moved in behind them.   The driver was a lady.   Deirdre stared at the lady.   The lady waved and winked.  Deirdre stared back.   The lady lifted a hand from the steering wheel and wiggled her fingers.   Deirdre looked away and sat and back on her heels.

As soon as Eileen wiggled her fingers the pale little face topped with carrotty curls disappeared.   Damn that youngster.  She glanced at her watch.     She didn’t want to have to find another one.   She’d show Head Momma what she could do.   This would be her thirtieth to-day, if the child would only look out the window.     Eileen tooted the horn.

Deirdre heard the horn and looked out the back window again.   The lady was still wiggling her fingers.   Deirdre raised a tentative hand and the dull-duckety car turned all bright blue and twinkley, like it was covered in stars.   Before Deirdre had time to exclaim the back window melted and the sky sucked her up,  like big vacuum cleaner.  Next second she was floating high in the night sky.

“Help!” she screamed,afraid to look down,   “Help… help.”

Nobody helped.

“You’re supposed to enjoy this.” the sky told her but she still didn’t like it.

After a bit she got more used to it but she was still afraid to look down.   It was like swimming in the deep end of the pool, quite nice but also quite scary.      She swam over the lonely black skyscape and out through the far-reaching stars.   It was pretty but lonely.   So lonely.   The stars twinkled and winked but Deirdre wished she was back in the boring old car with her boring old Mammy  and boring old Daddy.  The stars sang to her gently but their song just made her cry.

Suddenly,with an uncomfortable plop, she found herself dumped back in the car and dashing the tears from her eyes .

“Are you all right love?” asked Mammy.

“I had a very sad dream.”

“Oh you poor thing.” said Mammy wiping Deirdre’s tears from her cheeks. “Daddy, I think we should stop for an ice-cream”


“Youngsters nowadays!” declared Eileen.   “I don’t know what’s wrong with them.”

“They’re just youngsters.” said Tom.

“She was totally miserable so I gave her star swimming but, she wanted to be back in the car!   Imagine!”

“Maybe you need a rest.”

“I’m fine.”She snapped. “Besides there’s too much to be done.”



Billy looked out the back window of the car and hummed a little tune.   He liked looking out the back window watching the road and watching the cows,  and watching the fields and watching the telegraph poles whizz away.   He rested his head to one side on the back of the seat and looked up at the sky.   It was full of big, puffy.   They looked like trees and fishes and fat teddy bears.   One looked like a dragon riding a dinosaur.

“Hi dragon” said Billy.

“Hi yourself.” said the dragon.

And they had a grand conversation about dragons and dinosaurs and boys and adventures.   But  a loud beep-beep interrupted their chat.   It was a dull-duckety Volkswagen with a lady driving.   And the lady looked  a bit mad, grinning like a loon, waving her arms  and wiggling her fingers.   He waved back politely and laid his head sideways.   He wanted to talk to the cloud-dragon again.   Beep-beep went the Volkswagen, beep-beep, beep-beep.

“I think she wants to pass us.”   Billy said to his Mum who was driving.

His Mum looked in the rear-view mirror.

“There’s plenty of room.” she said, but she pulled over a bit anyway and slowed down a  little.   The lady in the Volkswagen nearly crashed into them.

“What on earth is she up to?” said Mum.

Mum indicated to show the Volkswagen that it could pass.   But it didn’t pass, it kept following and beeping.   Billy looked for his cloud-dragon but it had disappeared.   Instead the sky had turned purple, the purple of bruises and it cracked like an egg.   The crack spread and spread and bits of the sky started falling.

“The sky’s falling.” cried Billy, “the sky’s falling down.”


Eileen slapped her car keys on the kitchen counter and started pacing the room.

“Sit down will you.” said Tom.

“There’s so much to be done.” Eileen muttered and paced “So much…”

“You can’t do everything.” said Tom

“But if I don’t, who will?”

“Talk to Head Momma?”

“Her!   She’s stuck  in headquarters, she hasn’t a clue.”

Eileen grabbed her car keys again and left.


          Gillian and Joe drove  in companionable silence.   The children were asleep in the back.  That  Volkswagen was still following them .   Gillian wished the driver would either pass or drop back a bit.   It was driving far too close.   The Volkswagen gave a sudden, loud honk.   Gillian hoped it wouldn’t waken the children.  Joe looked up from the map.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

The Volkswagen honked again and the driver, a woman, kept her hand on the horn..   The children stretched and knuckled their eyes.

“Are we there yet ?” asked Joni.

“No love, not yet.” replied Gillian.

The baby started  to cry.   That made little Paul cry as well.   The Volkswagen still honked.
“What the hell is going on?” said Gillian  “Joni love, look out the back window and see what’s going on.”

Joni got up on the back seat and looked at the car.

“There’s a mad-looking lady driving.” she reported.   “Her hair is all skew-ways and her eyes are all starey.”

She watched the lady for a bit longer.

“She’s waving and wiggling her fingers.  Oh Mam, I don’t like it.”

But Joni couldn’t stop watching.   She felt like her eyes were on strings and the lady was pulling them towards her.   The lady’s fingers grew long and twisted, like a witch, only worse.  They grew longer and longer and now she could see her nails.   They were all ridged and yellow and sharp.   Then one of her hands burst through the roof of the Volks and right through the back window.   It grabbed the child by the throat.   Joni tried to scream but she couldn’t, the fingers cut off her windpipe and constricted her chest.  She just made a gurgling sound.   Joe looked round.

“Jesus Gilly, pull over.”

“What’s wrong ?”

“It’s Joni,” he shouted, “she’s gone blue, she can’t breathe.”

Gillian was in the middle lane.  She manoeuvred the car towards the hard shoulder.   Keeping one eye on the road, she tried to glance round at her daughter.   She didn’t notice the truck coming up on the inside.


Tom heard it on the news.   A whole family killed, crushed by a juggernaut.   Eileen still hadn’t come home.  He decided to phone the Head Momma

“Is she all right?”

“You heard the news?”

“They said a family…. Was it…?”


“Does that mean….?”   .

“I’m afraid so.”


          Eileen looked for the exit.   It was time she got home .   She saw the green sign for “Glenlua”.      She indicated and took the turn.   The exit seemed longer than usual.   It went on and on.   Eileen frowned to herself in puzzlement.   She must have  taken a wrong turn by mistake because she found herself back on the motorway.   Oh well, she thought, as long as I’m here…

In the car up ahead three little boys looked out the back window.   Eileen drove up behind them and wiggled her fingers.   They paid no attention.   She wiggled her fingers again and something strange happened.  The car pulled away.   She speeded up after it but it still escaped her.   Oh well, she decided, I’d better go home.

The green sign saying “Glenlua” appeared, she indicated, changed to the left lane and took the turn.   The exit seemed longer than usual.   It went on and on.   Eileen frowned to herself in puzzlement.  She must have taken a wrong turn by mistake because, once again, she was back on the motorway….






Arachnophobia:   an inordinate fear…. yes, that was true, an inordinate fear…. she couldn’t bring herself to think the rest.   Dr. Bishop was right, that’s what she had, Arachnophobia.  It was a proper disease, the doctor said so, written up in the big books he kept on his shelves.   He’d taken one down to show her.   She wasn’t depressed or mad or anything, she was arachnophobic.   And he said he could cure it.  She stood at the bus stop feeling… relief….   She was not mad.   A bus came into view and she put out her hand.   It squealed to a halt, she got on and handed the correct change to the driver.

“No drugs,” the doctor had said, “there’s no need for that, we’ll use operant conditioning.   It will take time of course….”

She smiled out the window at the sliding-away shop fronts.   No drugs!   She definitely wasn’t mad.   Isn’t that the first thing they do when you’re mad?   Drugs, injections, strong-arm nurses….  she shivered and remembered, no drugs, we can cure you.

“I suffer from arachnophobia.” she told herself over and over.

She hadn’t told him about her brother…. couldn’t.   The sudden jerk on the back of her collar, the threats, the choking in her throat…. and it didn’t matter what she did, he would still drop them down her neck, the… the… the things, the awful….   She wanted to scream and scream and scream and tear her clothes at the thought of it but she couldn’t do that because she was on the bus, and if she did they’d take her away and say she was mad.   But she felt physically ill.   She could feel her skin crawl…. they were down her back, all black and hairy, her stomach heaved and she rushed off the bus four stops too soon.

She clung to a railing holding her breath, torn, buffeted by her crawling spine, heaving stomach and the little voice inside that shrieked, “get a grip, get a grip, they’ll think you’re mad, they’ll think you’re mad.”

“Breathe.” the doctor had said.   “Breathe Ann, breathe.   The brain needs oxygen and so do the muscles.   It will help you to take control.”

She gulped in air but it wasn’t till she grasped her thumbs and repeated “Mama’s here, Mama’s here”, twenty-three times that she could find the strength to move.

She walked quickly and, when she reached the corner of her road, she ran.   Running was difficult with her bag squashed under her arm, her elbows tight to her sides but she couldn’t let her thumbs go or the creepy-crawling would all over start again.   It was hard to get the key out of her bag and twice she dropped it before she got the door open and could dash up the stairs and tear off her clothes.

Wash, she had to wash but they’d be in there, waiting for her, hiding in the black plugholes.   Her brother, Brian, said that was nonsense, that they didn’t live in plugholes that they fell from the ceiling but, she found that hard to believe.   She had seen their black legs waving from the dark and their fat black bodies heaving out of the drain….  Mama’s here, Mama’s here… she gasped and gasped and kept losing count and having to start again.

When she was absolutely sure she’d said it twenty-three times she was calm again.   She looked round the bathroom warily…. nothing, the floor, the ceiling…. nothing.   She poked a bamboo cane down the plughole…. nothing, so she stuck in the plug.   She could have a shower now.   When she’d dried herself and put on clean clothes, every garment from it’s sealed plastic bag, she felt a whole lot better.


*   *   *


“I’m sure that was the beginning of your trouble,” Dr. Bishop said, “the trauma which initiated your phobia.”

She was glad now that she’d told him about Brian.

“But however interesting the cause,” he continued, “it’s the symptoms that create the trouble, the fear, the sense of paralysis, that’s what we’re dealing with here.   And now we’re learning to control them.

“The worst is in the kitchen.” she said.

“The worst?”

“Yes, there’s always one in the kitchen.”

“Ah, there’s a spider in the kitchen is there?”


“Do you think you could describe it?”

She felt panic rising.   She could see it at the table with its knees apart and its surgical stockings.   The elbow pushed amongst the dirty delft and crumbs, the head resting on the palm pushing the tablecloth was skew-ways.   She held her breath.

“Breathe Ann, breathe.”

She held her thumbs tightly.

“Now tell me,” his voice was calm, reassuring, commanding.   “Take your time.”

Mama’s here, Mama’s here…. she mouthed it twenty-three times and was safe.

“It’s fat and black and hairy.” she said in a little girl voice.

“There now Ann, that wasn’t so bad was it?   Relax now, close your eyes.   I think we’re doing pretty well, don’t you?”


But she held on securely to her thumbs.

When she got home it was in the kitchen.   Of course.   As usual,.   So she went upstairs to her room.

“Are you all right Ann?”   It called up the stairs.


“Your dinner will be ready soon.”

“All right.”

As long as she didn’t look directly at it she was fine.   It thought that she was shy, introverted, depressed, mad…. that’s why it insisted that she see the doctor.   Well, she was seeing the doctor and he was helping her.   She’d talked about it to-day, not said…. the…. the word but talked about it.


*   *   *


“Sp…. sp…. spider.” she gasped and laughed and held her thumbs close to herself.   “There now I’ve said it.”

“Wonderful…. good girl.   My, we are making progress!   Do you think you could name any type of spiders?

“The Common House sp….sp….spider.   Tarantula and the…. the…..”

She could see it from the corner of her eye, the white podgy fingers, swollen round the ring, creeping along the kitchen table on its way to the cooker.

“I’ll always look after you,” it said, “you know I always will, as long as these poor legs can carry me.”

It grunted and bent to the oven.   Ann gagged and was afraid she might vomit on Dr Bishop’s lovely carpet but she couldn’t get a tissue from her bag without letting go her thumbs.   She swallowed back the bile and repeated to herself, Mama’s here, Mama’s  here, oh Mama’s here….

“Just breathe Ann, breathe…. that’s very good.   Tarantula and….?

“And…. the…. the…. the Black Widow.”

“Good, that’s very good.   Now relax.”

Black Widow was what her brother called it when it first came to look after them after Mama had gone away forever.   She didn’t remember much of Mama, she was too young, but she remembered her cheek against a pink flowered apron and Mama rocking her and saying something lovely in her ear.   The widow never wore an apron, she wore black.   Ann opened her eyes quickly.

“The one in the kitchen…. the one I told you about before,” she whispered, “it’s a… it’s a Black Widow.”

The doctor laughed indulgently.

“Well now Ann, that’s a bit unlikely,” he said, “they couldn’t survive here, it’s too cold, they only live in hot climates, it must be just a Common House Spider.”

“But it frightens me….  I can’t get away.”

“Yes, I know it frightens you.   Now take a breath, relax, close your eyes.   Imagine that the sun is shining on you, feel the warmth…. now imagine that you are going to a safe place, a very safe place, where nothing at all can harm you….”

The sun was shining somewhere outside but she crouched in the dark, hiding, safe, under the stairs.   Her brother was beside her, big and strong.   It would never catch them here.   She could hear the voice calling for them out the back.

“She killed her husband.” Brian whispered in her ear.


“Oh yes!   That’s what Black Widows do, they kill their husbands right after mating.”


“Then why’s she called the Black Widow?   She poisoned her husband and sucked his brains out through the top of his head.”

“Stop!   I don’t want to hear.”

She tried to cover her ears but Brian grabbed her hands and wouldn’t let her.

“And then she sucked out his lungs and heart and liver and all his guts and all the piss and ca-ca through the hole in his head.

“Stop, please stop.”

“And all the insides of his legs and feet and left him there like a burst balloon.”

She was crying now.

“And she’ll do the same to you.”

“You too, you too.” she said trying to hit him.

“Oh no she won’t.   I’m going away to school and you’ll be all alone with her….”

Mama’s here, Mama’s here, oh Mama’s here…

“Now I want you to imagine,” Dr. Bishop’s voice interrupted.

Oh yes, imagine she was safe with her brother under the stairs, the Widow couldn’t suck her brains out there.

“Imagine,” the doctor continued, “that away in the distance there is a spider, a very tiny ….”

The Widow’s step came closer, her voice louder, her hand on the door….   Ann started screaming then.

“Open your eyes,” the doctor commanded, “Ann!   Open your eyes and look at me.”

She looked into his grey-blue eyes, her brother faded, the dark grew light and the Widow  was no longer at the door.   He had grizzled eyebrows.

“Now look round the room.”

The room was soothing, all plants and big fat books and turkey carpets.   He was talking to her calm and quiet.   She didn’t really know what he was saying but his voice was soothing and he kept his distance at the other side of his shiny desk.   She liked that.   She hated when people touched or came too close.   He put on his spectacles and took them off again, pinched his nose, rubbed his eyes and smiled.   He must be what, fifty…. fifty-five?

“Are we going a bit too fast?” he asked.

“Yes, a bit.” she replied.


*   *   *


As long as he covered the pictures with a piece of paper she was all right.   And she could read, as long as she didn’t have to touch the book.

“Spiders weave complex webs of great delicacy as a safeguard against falling, to catch prey and to nest.” she read in a rush.

“Keep breathing Ann, keep breathing.”

That was right, that’s what the Widow did.   She wove her web right there in the kitchen making savoury casseroles and apple-pies and listening to the radio.

“Can you read another bit?”

“They do not hunt, they wait.   And when an insect flies into the web they do not kill, they scuttle out and paralyse their victims and store them in their larder.

“You’re perfectly safe Ann, keep breathing.”

She had been the Widow’s prey a long time now, since Brian went away to school.   The Widow washed and dressed and fed her.   She choose her friends and kept her home from school if she thought she had a sniffle.

“She’s delicate.”   The Widow used to tell people on the phone, “I have to mind her health.”

In the winter the Widow kept her indoors and, when she must go out, swaddled her in woolly vests, extra cardigans, mittens, thick tweed coats, knitted hats and scarves.

“Keep your throat covered,” she warned, “or you’ll catch your death of cold.”

And when she finally left school the Widow told her she had no need to work.

“There’s plenty of money you know, besides you’re delicate, a job would kill you.”

Ann protested but it was no good.

“We can look after one another.” the Widow said.  “I’m not getting any younger.”

The widow had her caught and wrapped in silk and paralysed…. She held her breath so long she started to go blue in the face.

“Breathe Ann, breathe,” Dr. Bishop shook her shoulder.

She gulped in air and grasped both thumbs,  Mama’s here, Mama’s here, she told herself, “Mama’s here, Mama’s here, Mama’s here….”

There she only had to say it ten times now.   She would not stay wrapped and helpless.   Dr. Bishop was helping her to get out, to make her free.  It was working already, his operant conditioning.  He had even touched her shoulder and she didn’t mind.   She went home happy.


*   *   *


“Do you think you’re ready?”


Her stomach churned and she shivered but she did not flinch.   She was determined now.   Dr. Bishop was very kind and she would not let him down.   He propped the picture on his desk.   She gulped and grasped the arms of the leather chair pushing into it as though she were trying to fade backwards through the upholstery.

“If it’s too close I can move it further back.” he said.

“No, no…. it’s all right…. I’ll…. I’ll just…. just breathe.”

She closed her eyes and grasped her thumbs, Mama’s here, Mama’s here, Mama’s here…. ten times then she looked again.

“What kind is it?” she asked faintly.

“Black Widow.” he said, “they’re not nearly as dangerous as people think.”

The body was round and shiny with the red markings and legs, oh god, the legs, all sticking out like…. like the Widow’s sticks.  The black walking sticks she hobbled down to Mass on.   Ann felt like screaming but grasped her thumbs instead.   Mama’s here, Mama’s here….

“Breathe Ann, breathe.”

The legs, the hideous legs, like that photograph with the widow sitting behind her, black arms creeping round her white Communion dress, the surgical stockings…. Bile surged into her throat and made her cough and splutter and spit in her tissue.

“Breathe Ann, breathe.”

The widow had a photo taken every year in Mr. Mc Evoy’s studio and sent a copy to her only sister in England.   “Me and my little darling” she wrote on the back or “Happy Christmas from my little angel and me.”

Ann was angry.   I’m not her darling, she thought, I’m not her angel, I’m not, I’m not.   And she’s not my Mama!

“I think she’s dangerous!”  she said aloud, nodding at the picture.

Dr. Bishop chuckled.

“I know you do, but a picture couldn’t harm you now, could it?”


She did not run upstairs when she returned home.   It was the first time that she hadn’t.   Instead, she went straight to the living-room.   There they were!   Years of photographs in their silver frames.   They covered every surface, the mantlepiece, the piano, the little tables, the whatnot.   She gathered them up and sat in the middle of the floor systematically tearing the. photographs out of their frames and ripping them in halves, quarters, eights and sixteenths, every one, every single one and left them scattered on the floor.

“What on earth did you do that for?”   The Widow wailed when she found them.

“I’m sorry!”   Ann said not looking, “I was angry.”

“Better lie down Ann, you’re not well, you’re not well at all.”

“I’m perfectly all right.”   Ann could hardly contain her anger.

“Well we’d better clean up the mess.” the Widow said and hobbled to the bureau, sticks clattering against the furniture.   “Fortunately I have copies.”

Ann ran upstairs and put her head into her pillow and screamed and screamed and screamed.


*   *   *


“I think it’s time to look now.” Said Doctor Bishop.

She started breathing quickly.   Out of the drawer of his desk he took a matchbox and opened it.   She grasped her thumbs.

“Don’t worry, it can’t escape,” he said and put it on his desk.   There was Cling-film over the inside part of the box where….where…. where IT was.   It grew huge and fat…. big round belly, red hourglass marking….

“She’ll suck your brains and guts out.”   Brain whispered in her ear.

The legs all swollen, surgical stockings….

“You’ll kill me!”   She screamed at it.

“Ann, Ann, calm yourself.   Breathe.   Look, I’ve closed the box.”

Dr. Bishop put it back in the drawer.

“…. kill me, kill me.”   She broke down sobbing.

“I’m trying to help you that’s all.   Just breathe, relax….”

“No, no, not you, the, the…. ” She pointed to the drawer where the Widow had retreated.

“Ah …. so that’s what this is all about.   You thought it was a Black Widow!   No my dear it was just an ordinary house spider.   They are harmless, you know that.   In fact they help mankind by catching flies and insects.   House spiders can even become pets.  My grandfather had one.   It came down from the ceiling every time he sat down at his writing desk and kept him company.   As a matter of fact he was very fond of it.   Always said it had  a personality of it’s own….”

Oh Mama’s here, Mama’s here, Mama’s here, Mama’s here…. she grasped her thumbs and didn’t listen to his talk…. Mama’s here, yes Mama’s here….

Eventually she calmed enough to dry her tears and look at the spider in the box.   It was quite small really.

“Not bad,” he said, “not bad at all.   I think we’re making progress.”

She closed the hall door, hung up her coat, marched into the kitchen and looked straight at the Widow.   She could see what she was up to all right.

“These poor auld legs are killing me,” the Widow said, “Ann, can you take the bread out of the oven?   I don’t think I can manage it love.”

Oh yes, she could see what she was up to!

“Ann love, I need a bit of help here, can you put the clothes out on the line.”

That’s why she had kept her at home, made apple tarts and souffles, bought her silky nightwear and good Italian leather shoes, that’s why she petted and pampered her.   To make her guilty, to make her owe, to put her deep into debt.   The Widow wanted to be minded while she puffed and limped and grunted and ended up in a wheelchair.

Well she wouldn’t do it, she wouldn’t.   Spiders spin webs as nests and safety nets, she remembered, not just to catch prey.   She recalled the spider in its little prison on the doctor’s desk.   She could look now, she could look.   The prison grew and grew, black bars and double locked doors.   The Widow sat inside, her knees apart, her legs all swollen in their surgical stockings.   Her sticks beat loud against the bars, furious and helpless, demanding to get out.   Ann feared that the locks would not be strong enough.

“Don’t worry Ann,” her Mama whispered in her ear.  “I’ll never let her harm you.”

Mama WAS here!   Suddenly she felt exultant.


*   *   *


“I think we’ll let it out to-day.”  the doctor said.   “But first, I want you to relax and breathe.   Close your eyes…. and remember your safe place!

Under the stairs, by herself, she was safe in the dark.   She heard a slow thunk-thunk above her head.   It was the widow.   Thunk-thunk, coming down the stairs, thunk-thunk, coming down.   And calling.




“Where are you?”

She wanted looking after.   She always wanted looking after now.   Ann grasped her thumbs to her chest, Mama’s here, Mama’s here….

“Take a deep breath Ann.   You’re safe,” the doctor said,  ” I won’t let her near you.”

Thunk-thunk.   Thunk-thunk.   Thunk-thunk.

“She’ll suck your guts out through your head.”   Brian whispered from afar.

Mama’s here, she’s here, oh Mama’s here….

The widow reached the last step, Ann could hear her grunting down the hall.   A stick rattled against the door, it opened.   Ann shut her eyes tight and held her breath.

“You’re safe Ann, breathe, I’m here to help you.”

She glanced sideways and there, standing at the open door was her Mama.

“Yes love, Mama’s here, your Mama’s here to help you.”

She felt her cheek against the pink-flowered apron.

“Mama’s here love, Mama’s here.”

“Take your time Ann,” said the doctor, “don’t look until you feel ready.”

She watched the spider crawl around the doctor’s hand and creep across the surface of his desk.

“Can I touch it?”   She asked.

“Why certainly,” exclaimed Dr. Bishop, “but is it not a bit soon?   Do you think you are ready?”

“I think so….  if I wear rubber gloves.”

“Of course, of course,”  He said, “I have a pair right here for just this eventuality.”

Ann crept her hand across the table, Mama’s here, and stretched a finger towards the spider, Mama’s here.   It ignored her for a while and then climbed slowly up the tip of her glove.   Her breath got caught, she couldn’t breathe or grasp her thumbs, Mama’s here, oh Mama’s here….

“Take it away.” she squeaked and shook her hand violently.   The spider clung and clung.

“Oh get off , please get it off.” she sobbed .   “Please, please!”

The doctor put the spider back in its little prison.

“Don’t worry, I’ll look after you.” he soothed.

Mama’s here, yes Mama’s here, she’s here….   Ann could breathe again and even laugh a little at her panic.

Dr. Bishop was in high good humour.

She practised every day, facing them.   She bought industrial rubber gloves, a long mac with a hood and wellington boots and every day she practised.   She felt invulnerable running the nozzle of the vacuum round the ceilings, into corners, nooks and crannies sucking up the spiders and their webs.   Every day.

“You know you don’t have to do all that cleaning.”  the Widow said, ” but it’s nice to see you so active.”

She practised in the bathroom too, drowning them in water.   Spiders could trap air, she knew, in the hairs of their body.   They could go down the plughole and stay afloat and when the water stopped they’d crawl back up again.   She turned the showerhead to max and let it run ’till the water scalded.   Then they’d crumple into a ball and die and flush away like so much dirt.

She was very nearly cured.


*   *   *


Dr. Bishop was delighted.

“Do you think you need to continue coming?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” she said.

“Well, how about a little break to see how you get on?”

“I don’t know.   Yes, maybe.”

“Let’s leave the next appointment for a month.

“All right.”


*   *   *


There was a massive thud upstairs.

“Ann!   Come here…. come quick.”  The Widow called.

Ann stood paralysed in the hall.   Breathe, she told herself breathe and she held her thumbs.  Mama’s here love, Mama’s here, yes Mama’s here.   There was another thump and the sound of water sloshing.   Ann put on her mac and wellies and the industrial rubber gloves and went to the bathroom.   The Widow was naked in the bath.   It unnerved her.   Somehow she never thought of her without black clothes.   Mama’s here, yes Mama’s here….   she took a deep breath and didn’t run away.

“Help me.” the Widow said faintly, “I slipped.   I think I’ve broken something.”

Ann stood at the edge of the bath looking down.   The Widow was twisted sideways, her flesh all soft and white and wobbly.   One arm was pinned under and she tried to keep her head above the water.

“Take the plug out.” she gasped.

The web acts as a safety net.   No longer…. no…. no longer.   Ann stretched to the showerhead and turned the water on full blast.   The widow screamed and struggled, slipped further down.   But the plughole was too small.   Oh Mama’s here, Mama’s here….   she took deep breaths like Dr. Bishop said, reached for the Widow’s head and pushed.   Mama’s here, oh Mama’s here, she’s here my love….   She held her under.   The legs flailed, the body heaved and flopped.   Water sloshed all over her mac and wellies but she held on, jaws clenched, breathing through her nose.   It struggled and it struggled but it didn’t curl up tight like most spiders.   It just went limp and flopped into the water with its eyes wide open and its jaw dropped down to its chin.

“Thank you Mama.”   Ann said aloud and left the bathroom.

She removed her wellingtons, her raincoat and her industrial gloves and put them away carefully under the stairs.

“Thank you Mama,” she said, “I’m better now, I’m cured.”




  Scullery Maid

Scullery Maid – After Edme Bouchardon 


She’d lain there, it seemed like forever.   The pain was so bad it fogged her mind.   She squeezed her eyes tight and tried to hold on.   She could hear the faint clash of the pots and pans from the kitchen and somebody called her name.   Her skirt was wet and there was a pool of blood near her head.

“Wait there” the young master said, “I’ll get help.”

He dashed up the stairs and slammed the door at the top.

She’d been going up the stone steps with a ewer of water, scalding hot, for the housekeeper. She didn’t see the Young Master ‘till he was right there in front of her grabbing her roughly and trying to kiss her.

“Please sir,” she protested, “I’m a good girl.”

She pushed, he pushed back.   Her heel caught in her skirt and she tumbled and bumped to the flagstones below.   Broken shards of the ewer were scattered all round her. Mrs Byrne would kill her.   Her skirts were sopping, she’d double kill her for that.   Pain shot through her body.   Like a blacksmith pouring fire in her veins. She tried to call for help but all that came out was a pitiful squeak. She tried to get up but the pain flamed and she couldn’t move.   All she could do was wait.   So she waited.   And waited and waited.

She must have fainted because when she came to, the pain was gone.     She sat up and looked round. She could move! The smashed fragments of ewer were gone.   Her skirt was dry.   She felt a bit floaty.   Still she waited, like the Young Master told her to.   And waited and waited.

The door to the kitchen creaked open and a man poked his head round it. She’d never seen him before. He was bald.   He pushed his way into the space at the end of the stairs.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Stairs to the servants’ quarters.” Another voice said.

“Smells like it hasn’t been opened in years.”

“It hasn’t.”

She called and waved but the man didn’t notice.   Of course, people don’t notice a scullery maid.   Then they were gone. Hadn’t been opened in years?   How could it be years?   She went to the door and, as she reached for the handle, she melted right through it and into the kitchen.   How did that happen?   She looked at her hands, red and swollen as always, her feet too.   She checked them again and noticed that she could sort of see through them.

The old range was filthy and rusted and cold, the shelves tilting, cupboard doors hanging off, the floor littered with rubbish.   She wafted through the kitchen wall, up the stairs to the main hall.   She was never up here before.   The hall was huge, big enough to hold a dance but it too looked abandoned.   There were the leavings of finery in the plasterwork on the ceiling, the oak panelling and the chandelier, filthy and all as it was.   She looked at her hands again and her feet and then it dawned on her.   She was a ghost.   That meant she was dead.   Curiously, she didn’t mind.   She just wondered, how long she’d been dead?

She ventured into the drawing-room.   All that was left of its grandeur were plaster-work roses on the ceiling, some broken, some half-mouldered away, the turkey carpet faded and torn, a couple of broken-down chairs, a mottled mirror over the mantle.   The Mistress must be dead, the Old Master too and likely the Young Master as well. She glanced out the window.   Standing at the front steps was a strange shaped, shiny, black, box thing with windows and wheels.   What could that be?

Two men came into the room.   She froze, nervous of being discovered where she was forbidden.   The same two as before but they didn’t see her. They were extra tall and wore strange clothing, rather dull, no colour, no brocade and no wigs but good quality, so not servants.   She touched the bald one on the arm. He shivered.

“Bloody cold.” he said.

“Not when you’ve done with it!” said the other.

“Is there a ghost?”

“Sorry, no ghosts.”

“I’m a ghost.” she shouted.

They ignored her.

“A ghost,” laughed the first one, “that would pull the in the punters.”

She went to the looking-glass over the marble fireplace.   All she saw was a dim reflection of the decaying room.   She did not see herself. She was truly invisible. Oh well, not much different than life.   At least now she could explore any part of the house that she liked.

Time does strange things when you’re a ghost.   Up in the Master’s bedroom she looked out the window and saw an old woman in the garden seated in a bath chair, wrapped in shawls.   There was something familiar about her.   In the library she saw a couple canoodling in a corner.   They looked like a butler and housemaid but none she’d ever met.   She greeted them but they didn’t answer. Up in the servant’s quarters she saw the Young Master creep into a maid’s room, but everyone knew about that.   In one of the guest rooms she discovered a wardrobe with a sagging door.   She opened it wide and there, large as life, stood Mrs Byrne, one hand on her hip the other waving her soup ladle and frowning.   She longed to be in there in that wardrobe, she didn’t know why.

“Can I come in?”

“Finish your chores girl.” spat Mrs. Byrne.

“Yes Ma’am.”

The door of the wardrobe slammed shut and she floated away to the next room.

Does a ghost have chores?   And what could they be? Best ask and suffer the sharp edge of Mrs Byrne’s tongue.   She floated back but the wardrobe was gone.

Then the men came.   Were they real? They seemed more solid than her visions, more like the men that had come that first day.   Men in working clothes, crumpled and spattered with paint.   And they had tools.   Magic tools that whined and buzzed and cut things in a jiffy and fixed things and changed things. Like the Gobán Saor in her grandmother’s stories.   They stripped and mended and made things and plastered and polished and replaced failing fittings with new.   It was a miracle. She tried talking to them, surely such magical men could talk with a ghost, they ignored her.   Still, they were some kind of company.

Then one day they were gone, all their work finshed.   The house looked like a palace awaiting a Princess.   There were lights that were not candles, you could turn them on and off by touching a square on the wall.   She reckoned the Sí must have had a hand in this somewhere.   Every bedroom had a bathroom with sparkling baths and a privy and basins attached to the walls with metal spouts spurting water when you moved the small handles.   The kitchen was unrecognizable, all white tile and steel.   She couldn’t wait to find out who might live here.

It turned out to be some kind of magnificent coaching inn for wealthy travellers, staffed by tall upright people in well-cut but strange-looking black and white clothing. Many of them held flat black things to their ears and talked to the air.   Some had boxes with pictures that moved and writing they could change by tapping on a thing on their desks. The Sí were involved for sure. The girls showed off their legs without a blush, and painted their faces. She tried talking to the one who sat behind the great mahogany desk in the hall to welcome the travelers.   She looked friendly.   But she never answered.   She tried the kitchen staff and the maids but none of them saw her or even sensed that she was beside them.

Guests arrived in magic carriages.   What else could you call them? They moved with no horses to pull them.   She wandered their rooms and saw them unpack and squabble and canoodle, and wash and sleep but none of them saw her.   .

She watched a room full of people eating improbable food and she had an idea. She turned off the lights. There were lots of startled oohs and ahhhs.   The head waiter apologised and they continued to eat by the light of the candles on their tables. She turned the lights on again.   More ooohs and ahhhs.

This was a good game to play.   She floated around turning lights on and off. Men in work clothes arrived with their magical tools but could find no cause for the behaviour of lights.   She laughed and laughed as she watched them.   Then she floated about turning little handles at random, letting water gush out and then stop.   More men in work clothes with more magic tools searched for the cause.   And more men were baffled.

“It’s a ghost.” declared the girl behind the mahogany desk in the hall. “A house this old…”

“Don’t be silly” replied the head waiter.

But, over time, as lights and water switched mysteriously on and mysteriously off he began to agree.   Travellers hoped they’d get a glimpse of the ghost.   She was thrilled.

Then one day she glanced in a mirror in the hall and saw a girl.   About the same age as herself, wearing the same long, dun–coloured apron over the same long, dun–coloured dress, and a grubby mob cap with curls escaping on to her forehead.   She lifted her hand to push back her hair and the girl in the mirror did the same.   She raised a foot to and the girl raised her foot.   Their wooden clogs were identical.

“Is that me?” she asked but she knew that it was.

Then she saw someone else in the mirror.   The girl from behind the desk.

“It’s the ghost,” the girl screamed, “it’s the ghost.”

Lots of people came running.   Some were delighted, some fearful, some refused to believe their eyes. Gracie, the scullery-maid ghost laughed out loud at that.   They could see her! She floated upstairs and back to the room where she’d first seen the wardrobe.   And there it was, with Mrs. Butler grinning beside it.

“Well Gracie,” she asked, “have you finished your chores?”

“Yes Mrs. Butler, I have.”

“Then it’s time to come through.”

Mrs. Butler took Gracie by the hand and helped her into the wardrobe.

 swan love reflection over a beautiful lake<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
 Stock Photo - 7898594  

We leaned over the toy-town bridge to look at the castle.   It was fairy-tale pretty, soft red brick, turrets, oriels and an arch over jade water where lilies glowed, swans ducked their elegant necks, a row-boat drifted at the end of its rope and reeds prickled the edges.

“Time to head off” I said taking my bike from the parapet. I’d had enough of these cute little Protestant towns, I wanted dancing and dope and the Hard Rock Cafe.

“Please stay,” begged Fionnuala, “it’s so pretty.   We can leave early to-morrow and be on the Overtoom by lunchtime.”

Cycling in Holland is great, proper paths and no hills but once you leave Amsterdam, jakers….!     Worse than being home in Kiltimagh.   Far too early-to-bed for my liking but Fionnuala had that silly grin on her face.

Zwanenburg, that’s what it was called, the town of the swans.  The streets were neat and leafy and the houses had thatched eves that sloped almost down to the ground. Every house had window-boxes overflowing with flowers.   White-blonde children rode bikes alongside the little canals.   Swans glided under humpty-back bridges.

“Okay.” I agreed.” But we’re definitely leaving to-morrow.”

We went into a small brown cafe full of house- plants and frilly half-curtains.

“Twee koffie verkeerde,” I said showing off, “twee broodje met ham.”

The comfortable blonde waitress, took her eyes from her order pad and frowned.

“You want coffee with a lot of milk and a ham sandwich?”   She asked, in English.

An elderly man sat at a table sucking pea soup through an extravagant moustache.
“Féach ar yer man!” said Fionnuala.

You can comment as loud as you like when you have the “cúpla focal”*, outside Ireland, nobody understands Gaelic.   The man raised his head and made a strange hissing noise.

“T’anaim an diabhal!”* I said and we both snorted laughing.

The man turned his head suddenly and stared, making us aware of his long weathered neck and his sharp Adam’s apple.   He said something grumpy to the waitress and they got into an argument. He jabbed an angry finger at us, she shrugged, we decided to leave.

“Let’s go back to Amsterdam.” I begged.

We have friends living there, who brought us to a café where beautiful black men with dreadlocks smoked dope.   I wanted to go back and roll joints and watch jugglers in the Vondlepark and feel sophisticated.

“Let’s get a beer first.” she replied.

We walked past drooping willows and story-book houses and a shop window filled with white chocolate swans swimming on a lake of white net.   Two thin old ladies stared at us from inside.   The sun was hot and I wanted to sit down. There was no sign of beer.


“I don’t know why you want to stay here,” I complained, “apart from pretty-pretty, there’s nothing.”
” I suppose Kiltimagh has it all?” Snapped Fionnuala.

She’s from Dublin and Dubliners think any place west of the Red Cow roundabout is bog-thick.

We turned into yet another cute, cobbled street and saw tables on the pavement. Beer at last. Across from the tables there was a canal with its quota of willows and ducks, and a pair of white swans…

“Isn’t this the bizz.” Enthused Fionnuala.

A young man, white blonde, cycled by with a girl on the bar of his bike. She was Asian and exquisite.   She carried a basket of eggs on her arm and her long, black hair rippled over his chest.   He turned his head this way and that watching for traffic and something about the way his head moved on his neck, the blue of his jacket, the black of her hair put me in mind swans on dark water.   I had noticed before that Dutch people have very long necks.   Necks were something I noticed because mine was stumpy. It looked as though God had stretched out his hand from the heavens and splatted me down with his palm.

“Our family were known for their elegant necks.” My mother reminded me all of the time. “But… you… well… you take after your father.”
After a couple of beers I was happy to stay in Zwanenburg for the rest of my life.   Fionnuala nudged me and pointed. Three fine-things had arrived and sat two tables away. They were all so white-blonde they were almost albino, if it weren’t for their dark eyes.  They kept grinning over at us. We but pretended to ignore them but we were thrilled.

“English?” one of them called.

“No way!” we called back in mock horror, “Irish.”

“From Ireland,” exclaimed another. “I have been there.   You believe people can turn into swans no?”

“No we don’t.” said Fionnuala.

“He means the Children of Lir.”* I said.

“Yes.” he said,” You know this story?”

“Of course.”

“Please, you must tell to my friends.”

The three lads moved to our table.   They were called Hans and Paul and Albert.   Albert ordered more beer and I told them their wicked step-mother turned Aed, Fiacra. Conn and their sister Fionnuala into swans by their and how they only regained their human form when they heard the bell of St. Patrick.

“Why did they want to change back?” queried Albert.

“Because they were human.”

“Is it so bad to be a swan?”
The blonde nations are all the same, the faintest whiff of philosophy and they’re off.   I’ve no time for it myself.

“Sure haven’t swans they the life of Reilly?” said Fionnuala. “Floating round doing nothing all day.”

“But they don’t do nothing!” said Albert, he sounded almost insulted.

“You know what they say about swans?” I interrupted before it got too heavy.


“Serene above water but underneath they are paddling like fuck!”

They fell about laughing at that.

It’s not all that funny, I thought, but it was nice that they thought I was witty. This was what we had dreamed of, Fionnuala and me, on the deck of the Sealink ferry, watching Howth Head turn to a mist. Sun, beer, freedom, handsome fellas.

Then Paul got jealous of Albert chatting me up and tried to muscle in. I think that’s what happened, they were talking Dutch and I only know a few phrases.   Whatever it was, Albert stretched his neck and pointed a finger just like moustachioed man in the cafe.   Paul threw more shapes, Albert raised his fists and Paul got up and moved a few tables away.   A few minutes later he tried the same trick on Hans but Hans got rid of him too. Albert apologised for the fracas.
“It is a tradition.” he said.

Men fighting over us!   And handsome men too!

That night they took us on a tour of the town, not that there was much to see.   There was the windmill that worked on Wednesday’s and Saturdays for tourists, the three canals, the willow pond, the statue of a famous scientist we’d never heard of and the castle. The castle belonged to a University department, some kind of bio-research.   Later when the moon was high and the night air was scented with jasmine, the lads suggested skinny dipping in the Castle moat.   Fionnuala and I exchanged looks and giggled.   There’s not much skinny-dipping in Ireland but last year we’d gone camping in the Greece near a nudist beach so we were dead cool with it.
The night was velvety warm and the moon floated on the still water.   The lads stripped and slid into the water splintering the moon.   They stood, waist deep in the blackness waiting for us.   We undressed and jumped in.   The water was pleasantly cold, we screamed when it hit us and splashed all over Albert and Hans.   They didn’t splash back, they just stood there and waited.

“Come, we will swim.” Hans said to Fionnuala.

“We too.” Albert told me.

It was eerie out there in the water. Not that we were alone.   Other people were swimming as well but no one was splashing, no one was shouting, no one was doing ducky-dives, all the swimmers were silent.   Albert swam towards me making a herringbone wake.   He swam under and round me and under again as though guiding me.   We swam to the shallows, near clumps of rushes, close to the arch of the castle. I stood up thinking to get out and get dressed.   I was feeling the chill.   Albert stood also.   I took a few steps.   The pebbles under my feet were rough and loose.   I lost my footing and had to bend over to keep my balance.   I don’t exactly know how things happened after that.   All I know is my head was under the water, I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t scream and he was raping me.

When he was finished he stood there like nothing had happened.  I was coughing and retching and crying all at the same time.

“Are you all right?” he asked circling round me, sounding unsure.

I couldn’t answer for sobbing I just wanted to get away.
“But you came swimming!” he kept repeating as though that explained everything. “You came swimming!”

Even when I’d regained my breath and began to look round for my clothes I still couldn’t speak, I could only cry.

“I thought you understood swans.” he said.

I got back to our pension somehow and found Fionnuala.   She was curled up on her bed with her thumb in her mouth, rocking.

“You too?” I asked and we cried in each others arms.

Next morning I was angry, very angry, we both were.   We were going to report this. We asked for directions to the police station.

“There are no police in Zwanenburg.” They told us, “you better you go to the Castle.

The door was aged and heavy and oak, but inside the reception area was bright with plants and faxes and word processors.   We told our story to the receptionist.   She nodded and smiled as though getting raped in the moat was an everyday thing. Then she brought us upstairs to meet the Director.   We told our story again.

“Do not worry,” he said. “We will take care of you.”

He led us down a corridor and up a spiral stone stairs to a room. It was a comfortable room, spacious, high cielinged with long windows that let in plenty of light and gave us a view out over the town.   There were easy-chairs, a TV and two beds.

“You can stay here.” he smiled. “We must to do tests, is better to be comfortable, no?”

“What about this Hans and Albert?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” he replied and left us alone in the room.

“I want to go home to my Mum.” Said Fionnuala.

“But we have to file charges. “ I said, “we have to look after ourselves.   This place is set up for bio-research, we’ll be in good hands.”

They checked everything, heart, lungs, urine, blood, kidneys, liver, gall-bladder, it took three days.

“You are both very healthy,” the director told us “And you,” he smiled at me, “you are pregnant.   Congratulations.”



“But it’s too soon to know.”

“Our methods are very advanced.”

Jesus H Christ!

“I want those bastards in jail!” I screamed.

“They’ve done nothing wrong.” said the director.

“They raped us!” snapped Fionnuala.
“But you went swimming with them,” he shrugged, “they only followed their nature.”

I was speechless.   I started to gather up my things.

“We’ll go to the police in Amsterdam,” I said, “one way or another we’ll get those bastards.

“You must stay here .” said the Director. “Once Albert knows he will look after you, he will be faithful and true.”

“He’s a rapist.”

The director shrugged and walked out of the room locking the door behind him.   For the next three days we were prisoners.   We thought of escaping out the window but it was way too high up.   Each evening at six on the dot, we watched the Director, the receptionist and the rest of the staff leave for home.   At half past six a woman brought us our evening meal and, when she’d cleared our dishes, we watched her leave too.

On the fourth evening we listened at the door .   When we heard the squeak of her rubber soled shoes and the rattle of ware on the tray, Fionnuala flattened herself against the wall beside the door.   I sat at the table as though waiting for food.   We heard the key turn in the lock, the door swung open.

“I hope you are hungry this evening” the woman smiled as though all this was perfectly normal.

Fionnuala stuck out her foot and tripped her.   She was a heavy woman and she crashed to the floor in a shower of cutlery, crockery, meat, potatoes, salad and vitamin supplements.   We didn’t wait to see if she was hurt.   We got out of that Castle as fast as we could.

Back in Amsterdam we talked and talked and talked about it with our friends but it was too late to go to the police.   What evidence did we have now?   Our friends brought me to a hospital to arrange an abortion but they said it was too early to be sure.   I tried to forget what had happened by smoking weed and listening to jazz in the Leidseplein. But it wasn’t that easy.

One morning I woke up with terrible cramps and the sheets all covered with blood.   Miscarriage I prayed. Please let it be a miscarriage.   But it wasn’t a miscarriage.   It was an egg.   I’d laid an egg.

When I saw it there on the bed, delicate, greenish, blood-smeared, I felt a fierce urge to protect it.   I tried to mind it, I tried to keep it warm, the way swans do but I had no feathers, no down, no experience….   And one night, while I slept, I rolled over and it broke. I mourned its loss for a bit but, as I washed out the sheets, I felt a great surge of relief.   Then I went home to Kiltimach as though nothing had happened.



“Come to Lourdes with me,” said my mother.

For crying out loud!   Lourdes!

“I’ll pay your fare.” she added, before I had time to recover….

Are there no depths she won’t sink to?

“It’s in France.” she cajoled – in case I didn’t know! “Think of all that gorgeous food.”

No… no depths…. she’d try anything that might inveigle me into a church, give her the illusion that I still go to Mass.

“And besides,” she added, “the oul  legs aren’t great.”

Now it’s the moral blackmail.   She doesn’t do it consciously but somewhere deep inside she knows.    She knows how to hoist me on my hand-made petard.    My spirited defence of young girls collecting their “Unmarried Mothers”, and the time the I shook the Minister’s hand  outside Hanratty’s Supermarket.

“When are you going to do something for the Travellers,” I’ demanded, “it’s a disgrace, they’re living on the side of a ditch.”

Mother was mortified, especially as the Minister was a local man and the son of her father’s best friend.  I could just hear her,

“You’ll look after any stray dog or divil but when it comes to your own poor mother…..”

And she’d have a point.

“Okay,” I said.   I’ll come to Lourdes with you.”

My head flirted with the crunch of baguettes, vine-dappled gables and the smell of wild thyme….   I just hoped there’d be a chance between Rosaries, Stations, Candlelight Processions and the nipple-numbing plunge in miraculous water.

The “Immaculate Conception” Hotel was cheap,  spartan and geared for the devout flocks of Irish country parishes.   Men un-practised in suit-wearing.   Women in white cardigans, clutching plastic bags bulging with Jacob’s biscuits, Barry’s tea and thermos flasks.    People with varicose veins or a touch of sciatica.   The kind that like spuds in their jackets and believe that you can’t beat a good apple tart with plenty of custard.   There  was  a French woman working in the kitchen, Josette, can you imagine what she made of it?   Anyway, that’s where we stayed.   It was more a hostel really, run by Irish nuns.

The Immaculate Conception Hotel I thought as I came down for breakfast that first morning.    I’d be wary of any stray pigeons round here.   Look what happened the last time!  I squirreled this humorous notion in the back of my brain to share later on with my friends.  Josette had clearly drawn the line at the Full Irish Breakfast and decided on the Continental revenge.     Two buns of air-bread, some whey-coloured grease and a thick bowl of milky,white coffee.  Tepid.

The parish stalwarts poured hot water from jugs over their tea bags and reminded one another that you need to heat the teapot and use fast-boiling water if you want  a proper cup of tea. Mother was hoop-de-la at the thought of the spiritual exercise to come.   She knew better than to suggest that I tag along to the triple basilicas and blessings of sick but she had high hopes, on aesthetic grounds, for the Candlelight procession.   I wondered idly about the scent of wild thyme.    We agreed to meet at the end of the day in a nearby bar which looked less penitential than the lounge of our hotel  with its orange plastic sofa.

I put the wild thyme on hold and had a great day mooching round shops.    I passed on pearlized rosaries, Our-Lady-shaped bottles and fake-gold miraculous medals, I was looking for something really bizarre to bring home.  I toyed with a Virgin-Mary- blue photo album which played “The bells of the Angelus” and bought several pairs of earrings which dangled scenes from the Grotto.   Then I found my best buy.   It was a 3-d postcard of the agonized head of the crucified Saviour.  The head was hanging down but, when you moved the card, the head rose, the jaw dropped and it was the spit of my friend Jake, stoned out of his brains.  When I finally flopped into the bar to meet mother, my feet were killing me.

Whatever about her religious views, mother enjoys a drop of sherry of a Sunday and a small medicinal brandy when she gets the sniffles.   Being in France, she decided that local cultural mores dictated that she should indulge herself in a few glasses of red wine.   In no time at all she was pink round the gills and, as she moved up the scale from chatty to loquacious, the door of the bar was flung open.

This bizarre-looking guy, grotesquely tall, sleeveless black t-shirt,  puppet-thin arms and rainbow striped, tea-cosy cap stood with his hand on the door in the flung-open doorway.   He cocked his head, like a bird looking for worms, hot black eyes darting.   Whatever he saw clearly satisfied him and he hauled a wheeled stretcher into the bar.    The stretcher looked about eight feet long and it was bare except that sitting, if that’s the correct expression, in the middle, was a head on a cushion.   A live head.

There’s times when you know you shouldn’t stare, when you know it is, to say the least, not politically correct but you can’t help it.   Your eyes keep swivelling back again and again.   It was like that.

“Bier, s’il vous plait.” said the head to the barman.

Well the crowd in the bar were pole-axed into silence.

Eventually, the chatter re-started, an octave higher and splattered with squeaks.     Mother’s jaw had dropped.   She grabbed her glass,  downed the rest of her wine and ordered another.

“Sure the creathurs!” she exclaimed full of vinous good will, “I suppose they’re here for the cure.”

I couldn’t help staring.   Tiny arms had appeared out of the side of the cushion with tiny hands, holding the glass of beer like a child, the head chuffing it down at the rate of knots.   Then it dawned on me that it was not a cushion but a body of sorts.    He, I say he, because of the black beard, meticulously trimmed, he, the head, caught me staring and he winked,  a dirty, big, lecherous wink.   I looked away as fast as possible wondering if I had only imagined it.   Mother meanwhile, having downed the best part of another glass of red wine, had shifted from loquacious to indiscriminate hospitality mode.

“How’s she cuttin’?” she said to the gangly man.

He didn’t reply but that didn’t deter her.

“Why don’t you join us?”

She shifted her chair a centimetre or two but it’s tricky to get a wheeled stretcher to a little bar table.

“You must excuse my friend,” said the head, “He is deaf.  He’s from Rumania and never got a chance to learn to talk, but he can sign.   I help him out.”

“Aren’t you terrible good.” exclaimed my mother.

“Well it is mutual,” said the head.

“Isn’t that  what it’s all about.” said my mother and, to my acute embarrassment, she burst into song.

“If you can help somebody as you pass along….”

“Perhaps you would care to join us.” said the head.

Mother had her chair over in a flash.   She rested not only her drink but her elbows on the stretcher, and settled her bottom comfortably for a good chinwag.   I followed more circumspectly, half-embarrassed that she had been so forthcoming and half-proud that she hadn’t been freaked.

“My name is Marco” said the head, “and this is Vlad.”

“How do you do,” simpered mother taking the head’s hand between thumb and forefinger and wiggling her fingers to the tall mute.

“I’m Mrs. Finnegan, and this is my daughter Marie.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Marco the head, and, as I held out my hand, he made a movement which somehow gave the impression of gallantry, hand-kissing, clicking of heels.

“Where are you from?” asked mother.

“From Spain.” replied Marco.

“But you’re English.   It’s perfect.”

“When I was born, my family were horrified but, they were wealthy.    They sent me to Sweden for the very best schooling.   That’s where I have earned my English.”

Mother warbled on, not a bother on her, while Marco’s head listened politely.   The eyes of tall, thin, deaf Vlad darted constantly.   Occasionally he would hold his big hands in front of Marco and jabber in signs and Marco’s little hands would flicker in response.   Mother continued as though she were in Castle Street, leaning over the counter in Mc Stay’s High Class Drapery and Haberdashery.

Just as well she was on a roll, for, all I could think of was, is there a body inside that cushion?    What is it like?    Can he go to the loo?   Has he got all his bits?    I reminded myself that he was just another human being but my eyes betrayed me, they were out on sticks.  Like the time I kept lisping at a woman with a very bad lisp.   I couldn’t help it.   She was embarrassed, I nearly died but I couldn’t stop myself.    This was worse.   I dragged my eyes to my mother, to the bar, to the other drinkers, anywhere else but they kept flicking back, like they were on springs, to the head on the cushion body, to the tendril-like fingers curled round the glass.

Mother rose, a mite unsteadily I thought.

“I have to go and powder my nose,”

“Are you okay?”  I asked, more willing than usual to help.

“I’m perfectly fine.” she replied, “you stay here Marie and talk with this nice young man.”

She wafted away.

I know that tone of voice.   She thinks I’m too choosy.   It’s what she said when I refused to go out with the new doctor.  Lovely man, she says, very handsome.   True, but  he’s an alcoholic.   And Bart Brady, thick as a ditch and a fascist, oh but there’s plenty of money there Marie, he’ll come in for a fortune!   Or Oliver Finn and his friend George, the two vets, the most eligible bachelors in Ballinacrann.    I love them, they’re gorgeous but they’re gay.   Now she wants me to chat up Marco!

As soon as my mother had gone Marco cocked his head at me.

“Why don’t you ask?” he challenged.

“Ask what?”

“All those questions you’ve been thinking.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes you do.”

I started to protest but he interrupted.

“Yes, I do have all my parts, just like any other man.   Lungs and heart obviously or I wouldn’t be here.   Proper digestive system, full means of waste disposal.   Vlad looks after me, holds me over the toilet, he’s my best friend.”

“Oh right.”

I was trying to sound suave and unflustered.

“And yes, I do have a penis,” he grinned, “and it’s in good working order.”

Well I didn’t know where to look.   Marco’s hot brown eyes caught mine and held them with suggestions of danger and pleasure.

“Anytime,” he said, “if you’d like to explore….”

Oh my god, I thought, I’m being propositioned!   By a head on a cushion!   I got up awkwardly, knocking over my bag and scattering make-up and tissues and the Lourdes souvenirs all over his stretcher.

“What have we got here!”

He picked up the postcard of the stoned-looking Saviour and flickered it at me.

“Must be on speed.” he said.

Well I laughed, I laughed till I cried.  I laughed with relief and I laughed at the joke and I laughed at the notion of being chatted up by such an unlikely person.   Marco laughed too and Vlad laughed with a sort of gulping wheeze that alarmed nearby drinkers.    And that made us laugh all the more.

Mother arrived back  from the loo unbeknownst to us and signalled the barman.   More drinks arrived.

“I am glad to see you’re getting on so well.”

She  sat back in her chair, crossed her legs and quaffed her red wine.

“So you lads are here for the cure.” she said blithely.

Marco smiled.

“Nor really.  We live here.”

“Aren’t you very lucky.   You can get to the holy baths any time you like.”

Marco smiled again.   Rather ruefully I thought.

“We run a kind of hotel.” he said.

“Is that so?”

“A specialized one, for the disabled.”

“That’s wonderful.” mother effused, “you know, that’s what I call a vocation.”

“We like to think so.”

Vlad stood up and signed vigorously.

“I’m afraid we have to leave you now Mrs Finnegan.    Vlad tells me it’s time to go.” I hope you both have a wonderful time in Lourdes.”

Mother was into her bag like a dog digging for bones.

“Hold a tick” she said retrieving her wallet. “I want to give you something.”

She whipped out fifty Euro note and started digging in the money belt round her waist for more.

“No, no, Mrs Finnegan, please no….”

“Mam…” I warned, afraid that her wine-fuelled generosity might go beyond her means.

“It’s all right Marie.   I’d only spend it on rubbishy souvenirs.   I’d prefer to know it was going to a good cause.”

She ripped out another two fifties and handed them over.   Marco did that heel-clicking trick again and signed something to Vlad.   Vlad grinned and bowed to my mother and put the bank notes in his pocket.  Then they left.   I was  very suspicious.   It looked to me like a scam.   Hotel for disabled my eye!   Mother hailed a fellow parishioner seated at the bar.   I decided I’d follow the lads.

Bits of Lourdes look just like Moate, you know, country town, supermarket, local shops.   You’d never know there were thousands of pilgrims and a miraculous grotto.   That was where Marco and Vlad led me.   They turned into an anonymous street and opened an, anonymous  door and went in.    I followed them and rang the bell.  Vlad opened the door and looked at me.

“Marie,” Marco called from inside, “you are welcome, come in.”

“You lads are not here for the cure.”

I stepped into the hall.

“Well of course not, why should we?”

That threw me a bit.

“I just thought….”

“Yes…. all you able-bodied people think the same,  that we want to be like you.”

“Well don’t you?”

“Why?   We are whole as we are.”

He gestured to Vlad who took hold of the stretcher and pushed him down the tiled hall.    A girl with no eyes came out of a door.   Like, nothing in the eye sockets, just caved in skin.

“Ola guapita!”  flirted Marco .

“Don Juanito!” she flirted back. “Qué tal?”

She tapped her way down the hall and went out.

Vlad led us into an ordinary living room with a  sofa and chairs and a tele.  He lifted Marco off the stretcher and placed him in the centre of the sofa.

“Our apartment.”

Marco gestured around with his little arms.

“About that money my mother gave you.”

“You heard me refuse….”

“Oh yeah, sure…. is that what you do?   Con little old ladies!”

“No.   I run this place.   We only take people who have been disabled from birth.”

“So what about people disabled through sickness or injury?”

He smiled and shrugged

“They always hope to get cured.”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing.    But there’s no cure for us.”

“So that’s why you con old ladies?”

“We don’t con people, we freak people out.   It’s our… vocation.”

“It’s your vocation, to freak people out!”

“You should have seen your face back there in the bar!”

I remembered his proposition and blushed.   What kind of woman might take him up on it?

“Some women are morbid but I never fuck with freaks.”

He laughed so much at this that he toppled over on the sofa.   Vlad set him right again.  I wished he’d stop reading my mind.

“You’re just trying to shock me.”


“So what is it?   Some kind of revenge on the world?”

“Oh god, another psychologist!”

He signed to Vlad who doubled up laughing.

“So why do you do it?”

“To prove that we’re human.   To prove that we’re not little saints.   And once in a while, someone sees that, under this strange disguise we were born with, we’re just… normal people.”

“Oh.” I said limply.

“Drink?” he offered, “Gin, vodka, wine, beer?”

“But the money,” I persisted, “What’s with the money?”

“We have to live…. and it’s…” he hesitated a moment and grinned again, ” well it’s difficult for us to get jobs.”

“So you con pious old ladies instead?”

“We let people  stare at our oddities and sometimes it makes them feel guilty.   They hand over cash and feel saintly once more.”

“But that’s….”

“I know,” Marco grinned, “We’re  gigolos.   We call ourselves Gigolos for Jesus!”

That made me laugh.

Next day mother was in dire need of a cure.   She was sick as a dog and certain she’d need a broncardier to get her to the grotto.    A ferocious hangover, God love her, red wine, nothing worse!   Don’t I know it too well!   But at last she got herself up and out.    I sat at the breakfast table crumbling air-bread and wondering what to do with the day.   Josette scurried in and told me I was wanted at the door.

Outside a red Toyota had pulled up  with  Marco in the back seat and Vlad at the wheel.   When I opened the door of the car Marco did that gallant, heel-clicking thing.

“Do you like the scent of wild thyme?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Hop into the car,” he smiled, “we’ll take you.”

                                                                    THE END

One Comment

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