I’m eighteen and Gran is driving me to Howth to go to the market. It is late August and all the way through Baldoyle and Sutton the streets are sunny and the tarmac looks wet in the light and to the left of the car the water stretches out calmly, like it has never known a day other than this. The market used to take place in the carpark up until a few years ago and was mainly attended by locals who wanted to pick up a few jars of pesto and some vintage forks on a leisurely weekend morning. This summer it was moved into a purpose-built fixture on the Harbour Road so it looks more like a tourist destination and when we arrive there do seem to be a lot of people with expensive-looking cameras and I don’t recognise the vendors on some of the stalls. Still, the man that calls Gran a good country woman is still there and he flirts with her light-heartedly over the top of his fresh tomatoes and I can tell that she enjoys it because she buys some mucky looking carrots from him and says they’ll do for dinner. Gran hasn’t lived in the country since she was the same age as me but she likes being recognised as from the country and she rolls her eyes at me as we walk away, as though he was being a pain. As we move through the thickening crowd she keeps one hand on my back, guiding me lightly. We get tea and scones in the café beside the train station and she lets me pay because it makes me feel grown up. Gran spreads butter then jam across the top of her fruit scone with expertise. We talk about where I might go to college and I imagine her coming into town to meet me for lunch, on a day such as this, the mild Irish sun spilling over us gently.
I’m twenty-one and I’m standing at the fish counter at the back of Supervalu in Northside Shopping Centre, one foot propped up on the back wheel of the shopping trolly. Inside the trolly are items such as half of a sliced pan, a small plastic tub of cherry tomatoes and several pots of jelly. When we are finished here Mam will drive us back to Gran’s house and we will unload her two bags of groceries for her into her small fridge. It’s a light spring day but inside the shop is dark and the deep coldness of the fish counter is giving me goosebumps. I look at the dead fish, lying in their entirety across the ice, their eyes wide and their mouths open, looking fairly surprised to find themselves there. I’m pretty surprised to have found myself here too. Gran is standing looking up at the fishmonger on the opposite side of the counter as he tells her how the fish was brought in fresh from Howth that morning. She looks small beside the piles of ice and fish and her legs are thin beneath her jeans. She clutches her small leather purse in her left hand, inside of which I know she keeps her cash folded neatly and the key to her house. Mam is standing beside her in her clean runners and a well-ironed cotton shirt and she is smiling at the fishmonger and saying mam you’ll eat that piece of salmon over the week, won’t you? See how it’s in the paper bag with the butter already on it so you can just stick it in the oven like that for twenty minutes? Mam speaks with calm practicality. Gran is saying oh yes I will pet. I can have it with a baked potato. When we are walking away Mam whispers that she will in her arse.
I’m ten and sitting in the living room with Gran while she drinks apple juice-coloured Jameson. I know that Mr. Jameson was famous and used to live in the hotel by the beach before it was a hotel because Gran told me. Mam and Dad are out for the evening and my brother is in bed but I’m allowed to stay up with Gran for a bit because I’m older. She says we won’t tell your mam you stayed up this late. I agree to this. Gran will stay the night in the spare room and her repayment will be a Sunday roast cooked by Mam tomorrow afternoon. I will set the table like Gran taught me one Christmas, with the knives to the right and the napkins folded into neat triangles in the glasses. On nights like these we sometimes watch funny British television shows like Faulty Towers or the Vicar of Dibley, which Gran always finds hilarious, or she tells me stories of her childhood in Westmeath in the house called Riverpark. These stories unravel like fairy-tales to me, moving in my mind like some Irish Enid Blyton book, filled with loyal dogs and lambs running riot through billowing white sheets. Gran tells me about her throngs of older sisters, some sensible and some mischievous, and her mother, who I imagine to be as glamorous as a movie star, baking bread in the kitchen of the stone house I have only seen in a black and white picture, which only serves to romanticise the stories further. The different lives of Gran’s nine sisters interest me greatly and it would be some time before I learned that Gran also had a brother. My maternal history is built on the lives of women and Gran details them meticulously, the men remaining perpetually secondary.
I’m twenty-three and standing in a geriatric hospital ward in Beaumont. It’s early November and Gran has just turned eighty. I have a thick jumper on underneath my coat and in the warmth of the ward I feel clammy and uncomfortable. I take the coat off and stand with it in my arms while we wait. Gran fell out of the bed earlier that evening, when she was alone in the space between my auntie’s visit and that of me and Mam. Gran can’t seem to remember what has happened and sits in the bed looking up at Mam like a child. Mam answers Gran’s repetitive questions with patient solidity. She says we are just waiting for the doctor to come and tell us what happened mam. Gran nods and repeats I don’t really know what happened at all. The lady across from me says she called a nurse but I don’t remember. Mam says that’s ok mam, don’t worry. Gran turns to me and says hello darling, that’s a lovely coat, like I had only just arrived. Gran’s frailty feels sudden and uneasy and I long to tuck myself into the softness of Mam’s side, to hear the oceanic beating of her heart. When the doctor arrives, Mam makes clear that she’s unhappy and he is overly apologetic and suddenly Gran is full of indignation over her unfair treatment. Mam says that shouldn’t have happened, she needs better care than this, she’s already confused. The doctor addresses the three of us as he speaks and when he asks questions Gran and I turn to Mam for the answers. Outside, Mam and I walk to the carpark through the early winter darkness and she says don’t worry hon, she’ll be alright. She looks worried though, her face lit in soft yellow by the sodium lights. In the car she says dial your auntie’s number there and put her on speaker so I can tell her what the doctor said. My auntie answers after the first ring and takes in all that Mam says, waiting until she has finished speaking before asking questions. I sit holding the phone between us while Mam drives us home, thinking that she was born the matriarch of this family.
I’m twelve and it’s midsummer when Mam opens the front door of Gran’s house with her key, calling down the narrow hallway, mam are you in? The back door by the kitchen sink is open and we race down the steps of the garden to the bottom where Gran sits in the sunshine behind the high lavender plants, a Cathy Kelly book from Coolock Library sitting open on her lap and this week’s TV Guide on the table beside a finished mug of tea. She remains seated, queen-like, as we embrace her and she’s wearing her khaki bucket hat to protect her face from the sun. We walk back up the steps to the house with her and on the grass beside the flower beds are some gardening gloves and a few tools. Mam asks were you gardening mam? And Gran replies I have been doing a few bits, would you like a sandwich? In the kitchen sink she rinses lettuce she had grown in the garden and says to Mam I was over in the Clinton’s house there last night for a drink, they were asking for you. The sun streams in through the open back door and pools across the white tablecloth and the apples in the crystal fruit bowl grow warm in the heat. One of them looks like it’s been there a while and is starting to go wrinkly and soft around the stalk. A few nights ago Gran was down with her bowling club and she lets my brother and I inspect her pink bowling ball that she owns herself so she doesn’t have to use the ones everyone uses. I stick my fingers into the three deep holes and it feels cool and stony. Mam makes tea as Gran arranges Tayto crisps on the plates with the sandwiches and we carry them out to eat in the garden. Mam and Gran chat while we eat our sandwiches and Gran tells Mam that her sister Mags will be visiting from London in a few weeks and she will drive the two of them down to the midlands to visit their older sister Kay. I know that they are going to Kay’s house in Offaly where her family rears horses for racing and not to Riverpark, which burned to the ground when Gran was a young woman and after her parents had died and all of the children had moved away to Dublin or London. The house had been empty when it burned down. I ask Gran if they will rebuild Riverpark and she says no pet, one of the older nephews owns it now and he’s renting the land for farming. He might sell it one day. I nod into my sandwich. Mam runs her hand down the back of my hair and says we should all take a trip down to see it sometime, I’m sure your aunties would like to, and your cousins. People all over Moatfield Avenue and beyond are in their gardens, and from where we sit behind the lavender I can hear music from a few houses down and the roar of a lawnmower and children’s voices, rising above it.
By Kelly O'Brien