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Authors: M. J. Hyland

Carry Me Down

BOOK: Carry Me Down
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M.J. Hyland

Carry Me Down

Edinburgh • London • New York • Melbourne

Stewart Andrew Muir
(if only there were more like you)

It is January, a dark Sunday in winter, and I sit with my mother and father at the kitchen table. My father sits with his back to the table, his feet pressed against the wall, a book in his lap. My mother sits to my right and her book rests on the table. I sit close to her, and my chair, which faces the window, is near the heat of the range.

There is a pot of hot tea in the middle of the table and we each have a cup and plate. There are ham and turkey sandwiches on the plates and, if we want more to eat or drink, there is plenty. The pantry is full.

From time to time we stop reading to talk. It is a good mood, as though we are one person reading one book – not three people apart and alone.

These kinds of days are the perfect ones.

Through the small, square window I can see the narrow country road that leads to the town of Gorey and, beyond the road, a field of snow. Beyond the field of snow, although I cannot see it now, is the tree I pass every morning and two miles beyond the tree is Gorey National School, where I will return at the end of the Christmas holiday.

On the corner of the road, to the left of the front gate, there is a post with a sign pointing to Dublin and another, smaller sign beneath it, pointing to the cemetery. For two more days we will be together, the three of us, and that’s what I want. I don’t want anything different.

* * *

When I see that my mother is near the last page of her book, I take a pack of playing cards and move it towards her elbow. Soon, she will put her book down and offer me a game. I look at her face and wait.

Suddenly, she closes her book and stands.

‘John,’ she says, ‘please come with me.’ She is taking me out to the hallway, away from my father. She is taking me out of his sight as though I am the rubbish. ‘Come now and leave your book behind,’ she says.

We stand at the base of the steep and narrow stairs that lead up to my parents’ loft-bedroom – the only room upstairs – and she leans against the banister with her arms folded across her chest, the skin on her hands cold and white like chalk.

‘Do I look different today?’ she asks.

‘No. Why?’

‘You were staring again. You were staring at me.’

‘I was only looking,’ I say.

She moves away from the banister and puts her hands on my shoulders. She is 5 feet 10 inches tall and, even though I am only one and a half inches shorter, she bears down on me until I sink lower. Her body hunches over and her bottom pokes out.

‘You were staring at me, John. You shouldn’t stare like that.’

‘Why can’t I look at you?’

‘Because you’re eleven now. You’re not a baby any more.’

I am distracted by the cries of our cat, Crito, who is locked in the cupboard under the stairs with her new kittens. I want to go to her. But my mother presses harder.

‘I was only looking,’ I say.

I want to say that there is nothing babyish about looking at things, but my body shakes beneath the weight of her arms and I am trembling too much to speak.

‘Why?’ she asks. ‘Why do you have to stare at me like that?’

She is hurting my shoulders and her weight is surprising. She looks lighter and smaller and more beautiful when she’s sitting at the table or at the end of my bed, talking to me, making me laugh. I’m angry with her now, for being tall, for being so big, so heavy and for making me so big, far too big for my age.

‘I don’t know why. I just like it,’ I say.

‘Maybe you should get out of the habit.’


‘Because it’s unnerving. Nobody can relax when you stare at them like that.’

‘Sorry,’ I say.

She stands up straight now and releases me. I lean across and kiss her near the mouth.

‘All right then,’ she says.

I kiss her a second time, but when I put my arms around her neck to pull her in closer so that we can hug, she pulls away. ‘Not just now,’ she says. ‘It’s cold out here.’

She turns and I follow her back into the kitchen.

My father’s dark, curly hair is messy and his fringe has fallen down over his eyes. ‘Shut the door,’ he says, without looking up from his book.

‘It’s already shut,’ I say.

‘Good,’ he says. ‘Keep it shut.’

He smiles in the direction of his book:
Phrenology and the Criminal

My father hasn’t worked for three years, for as long as we’ve lived here, in his mother’s cottage. Before we moved in with my grandmother, he worked as an electrician in Wexford, but he hated his job, and said so every night when he got home. Now, instead of going to work, he reads. He says he is preparing for
the entrance exam at Trinity College, and that he shouldn’t have too much trouble passing because last year he sat the Mensa test and passed with flying colours.

‘Look out the window,’ I say to my mother. ‘It’s snowing sideways.’

‘So it is,’ she says. ‘Doesn’t it look like flour coming through a sieve?’

‘Flour doesn’t go sideways through a sieve,’ I say.

Her tongue comes out to lick the corner of her mouth and it stays out. I lean across the table to touch it.

‘Your tongue is cold,’ I say.

My father looks at us, and my mother’s lips clamp shut.

‘I’m like a lizard,’ she says.

She smiles at me, and I smile back.

‘A strange pair,’ says my father.

Crito is quiet now. She’s probably glad to hear us talking and to know we are near by.

I return to reading the
Guinness Book of Records
, my favourite book. I own every edition with the exception of the 1959 edition and it is one of my Christmas presents every year.

I have a few pages left to read of the new edition for 1972, and I have almost finished reading the Human World section for the fourth time. The
Guinness Book of Records
is full of wonders, like the Chinese priest who holds the record for the longest fingernails. It took him twenty-seven years to grow nails twenty-two inches long and in the photograph they are black and curled, like a ram’s horns.

Best of all are the escape artists and men like Blondin, who crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire, and Johann Hurlinger, who walked on his hands for more than fifty days. He walked for 871 miles on his hands.

One day I will be in the
Guinness Book of Records
, along with all the other people who do not want to be forgotten or ignored. I will break an important record or do a remarkable thing. I don’t see the point of living unless there is something I can do better than anyone else can or unless I can do something that nobody else can do.

I fold the picture of the shortest woman in the world so that she’s up against the tallest man. His name was Robert Pershing Wadlow, and he was 8 feet 11.1 inches. By the age of eleven he was already 6 feet 7 inches tall.

I used to wonder if his voice started to break early the way mine has. I used to wonder whether I would become a giant. I still worry about these things but less now that I have decided that I won’t end up in the
Guinness Book of Records
for being a freak. I will get in there for a much better reason.

The shortest woman was Pauline Musters, and she was 1 foot 11.2 inches. When I fold her picture against the tallest man, she looks like something that has fallen from his pocket, not like a person at all: a person does not stand next to another person and reach the bottom of that person’s knees.

‘Look,’ I say to my mother. ‘This midget looks like an ormamint.’

I already know what she is going to say.

‘Ornament,’ she says.

‘Don’t bend your book,’ says my father.

‘OK,’ I say.

‘And you’ve hardly touched your sandwich,’ he says.

‘I don’t want to touch it,’ I say.

My mother taps my hand. ‘Did you leave half your sandwich uneaten just so you could say that?’


‘Then eat it.’

But the bread is stale now and it’s six o’clock, time for tea. My mother stands up and looks out the window. The snow has stopped falling. She wipes her hands on her jumper and puts a pot of water on the range. She opens the fridge and removes a package.

‘Do you want this?’ she asks my father.

He rubs his chin and doesn’t answer. He shaved his beard off yesterday and his shaving has revealed a dimple; a dark vertical slot in the flesh on his chin. He has been rubbing at it all day as though he hopes to flatten the crease.

‘Michael, do you want this for tea or not?’

He looks at the package. ‘No,’ he says. ‘I’d prefer kippers.’

‘We have none,’ says my mother. ‘We have no kippers.’

My mother hates to cook.

‘Then I’ll have that fish ’n a bag,’ he says.

‘That you will, then,’ she says.

They smile at each other, with a smile that is different from the one they use for me. What my father calls fish ’n a bag is a meal cooked in boiling water: a square piece of fish in a clear plastic bag full of white sauce.

‘Can I hold it?’ I ask.

‘If you really want to,’ says my mother.

I take the bag from her and squish the plastic, which is soft, like wet felt. ‘It feels like that goldfish I won at Butlins,’ I say.

‘Come here to me,’ says my father, and he hugs me, but his arms are pressing hard against my neck, and his grip is too tight.

‘Stop hugging my neck,’ I say. ‘It hurts.’

‘Give the bag of fish here,’ he says.

I give him the fish ’n a bag and he fondles it. ‘I’m going to have to disagree with you,’ he says. ‘This bag feels more like a bag of snot than a goldfish.’

My father laughs, and I laugh, although I don’t like it that he has compared my dinner to snot.

My mother confiscates the fish and puts it in a pot of water. I face my father.

‘Da, can you tell me a story?’

‘What kind of story?’

‘Any kind.’

My father clears his throat and sits up taller in his seat before he begins. ‘Very well. Here’s the story of Tantalus, who was sentenced by the gods to stand in water up to his waist. In winter the water was cold and in summer it was too warm. When Tantalus got thirsty and his mouth was very dry, he bent down to the water to drink and the water evaporated, and when he got hungry and reached up to the branches which were laden with delicious fruit, the branches lifted the fruit, and both food and water remained out of his grasp. And this happened to Tantalus for …’

‘A few days,’ says my mother, ‘as punishment for not washing his hands before tea, and then he sat down to a feast of roast chicken and chocolate ice-cream and he never went hungry or thirsty again.’

He smiles and says, ‘Wash your hands.’

As I wash my hands I see Tantalus licking his lips as he reaches down for the water. On the way back to the kitchen I go to the big bookshelf in the living room where my father keeps his reference and textbooks. I look in the encyclopaedia until I find the pages I need. There is Sisyphus with a red exclamation mark next
to his name. I put that mark there last year. I go back to the kitchen.

‘Tantalus is a lot like Sisyphus,’ I say. ‘You could say that both of them suffer in the same way.’

My father laughs. ‘Did you remember that while you were sitting on the toilet?’

‘I wasn’t on the toilet. I was only washing my hands and that’s when I remembered.’

I look carefully at his face. He is not laughing at me, so I join in.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I could clearly see Sisyphus pushing the boulder up a big hill and the boulder rolling straight past Sisyphus and back down the hill. I could see Sisyphus standing there, watching the boulder roll down, all sad and silent, and then pushing the boulder back up and the boulder rolling back down where it came from, over and over again. I think he must feel just like Tantalus.’

‘Straining to get the big brown thing where you want it to go,’ says my father, laughing until there are tears in his eyes.

Now my mother is laughing. ‘Good God,’ she says, ‘somebody get the poor man a glass of water.’

I jump up and get a glass of water for my father and when I sit back down my mother kisses me on the nose to thank me. ‘You’re nice to have around,’ she says. ‘I think we’ll keep you.’

‘Good,’ I say.

When my father has finished with the water I see that the buttons of his jacket are done up the wrong way. He does this on purpose, and it’s often a sign of good humour. I lean over and reach for the top button.

‘May I fix your buttons?’ I ask.

‘No, no!’ he laughs. ‘You’ll ruin my crooked and disarming looks.’

He’s in the mood for button-fixing and so I go around the table and grab for the second button. He shouts and laughs.

‘Get off me, fish face! Get off me!’

‘Only four buttons left!’ I shout in return.

I manage to undo one more button and then he gets up and goes to the window. He stand and looks out, his face suddenly serious; no more playing.

‘Christ almighty. I thought she was back early.’

‘Is she?’ I ask.

He’s talking about my granny, his mother, who’ll be back from the Leopardstown races on Tuesday. I’ve only two days left alone with them.

‘No,’ he says. ‘A false alarm.’

We sit down and he returns to reading.

I face the dresser so that I can look at the black-and-white portrait taken on their wedding day in 1960. My father was twenty-seven then, and even more handsome than he is now because his hair was longer. My mother was twenty-six. She is just as beautiful now.

Nearly all of Wexford parish knew of my parents’ courtship and the way each broke off an engagement to be with the other. I’ve heard that there was nobody who did not stop to stare at them as they walked down the street: they were like movie stars.

They look happy in the photograph, my father behind my mother, four inches taller than she is and making her smaller. I like the way they cut the cake together, my mother’s hand over my father’s, both holding the long, white-handled knife.

I’m not handsome, too lanky, and my nose is already too big for my face. It must be hard for my parents to look at me, wondering whether there’s any hope that I’ll turn out to be as good-looking as they are.

I return to the
Guinness Book
and read on page 398 that the
record for being buried alive in a ‘regulation’-sized coffin is held by an Irishman by the name of Tim Hayes. He was buried for 240 hours 18 minutes and 50 seconds. He came up for air on 2nd September 1970. I’m surprised I haven’t heard of him. Perhaps I could meet him one day.

BOOK: Carry Me Down
5.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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