What She Never Told Me@Kate McQuaile

Chapter One

Outside, the light is fading across the stretch of the extended town, past the estates towards the farmland and low hills beyond. My mother, no longer conscious, is also fading. The nurses haven’t spelled it out in so many words, but everything they say makes me think she is close to the end.

‘Talk to her,’ the nurses say. ‘She’ll hear you. The hearing is the last thing to go.’

So I talk to her in a low voice, mostly about long ago when I was a child because that was the time we were closest. I talk about our outings to the sea, the two of us walking down to Amiens Street Station and taking the train to Skerries, where we would change into our bathing costumes and run as fast as we could into the waves so that there was no time to change our minds. Sometimes we went further, taking the train all the way to Drogheda and then a bus to Clogherhead.

I remind her of how hungry we used to be after our dips in the cold water, so hungry that it didn’t matter that somehow the sand always found its way into the sandwiches she had packed. She would point into the distance at the Mourne Mountains, miles away to the north. And always, before we went back home, we would walk to the harbour to watch the seals that followed the fishing boats in from the sea.

Those memories are real, as real as everything I see before me now, except that the colours are muted, old-fashioned. They almost have a smell to them, the way the dark green of the old double-decker buses that carried us about seemed to have a smell to it.

I talk on, hoping she can still hear, losing myself in those memories as I recall them, so that the sound my mother makes – a ssshhh sound, repeated over and over – comes as a shock. At first, I think she’s saying, ‘Shush,’ telling me to be quiet. But there’s distress in the sound, as if there’s something more she’s trying to get out but can’t.

‘What is it, Mamma? What are you trying to say?’ I ask her gently, but there’s no answer, only the ssshhh, again and again. Eventually, the effort of it is too great for her and she sighs and lapses back into silence. I watch and wait. She is so calm now that I don’t even notice the point at which she finally stops breathing.

*

Hours later, morning is creeping through a gap in the curtains into the dark bedroom where I’ve lain awake through what was left of the night. I’m frantic, physically and mentally, my body trying to find a place in the bed that will bring some rest, my head trying to keep track of the thoughts that dart like arrows through it.

And, as if from a shell picked up on the beach and held to the ear, I keep hearing that sound she made before she died, the ssshhh sound. I hear it over and over again, ebbing and flowing, relentless in its rhythm, haunting and tormenting.

I can’t bear to think that something I said might have penetrated her unconscious state to hurt her. We had our moments, my mother and I, but even at those times when I thought I had come close to hating her I knew that there was no escaping the bond we had.

I talked to her about memories last night. I don’t know whether she heard me or not. But there’s another memory that I didn’t bring up because it hurt her once, a memory that has punctuated most of my life and that I have never understood.

It surfaces now, unbidden, and I see a green postbox and a small hand stretching upwards to push an envelope into its oblong mouth. The edges of the image are blurred. It’s as if someone has opened an old tarnished locket to reveal a silent film playing in slow motion inside. It’s always the same. It plays over and over, the little hand never in any position but extending upwards, the envelope always held in those childish fingers, the mouth of the green postbox almost within reach.

And then, as strangely as it has appeared, the grainy image fades, leaving me puzzled and slightly disturbed, even a little afraid.

I am never sure whether that small hand is mine. But if not mine, whose?

*

My mother’s coffin stands in front of the altar. It felt