Short Story: On the Edge

The pale pink light gave the room a heavenly glow. Siobhan lay in silence, watching the cavity of her chest rise, then fall, then rise again. The dripping noise from outside her window had stopped; the rain must have finally subsided. It had kept her awake most of the night, which meant that she was not jolted from the security of darkness to give Aoife her night feed. Michael was supposed to be on duty tonight, but Siobhan had supposed that there was no point in waking him up. He’d have only been cranky, and God knows there’d been enough bloody rows between them in the last few weeks to last a lifetime.

‘You’re crazy, woman,’ he’d said to her at the peak of yet another row where she had threatened to leave for good. She’d even had her cabin-sized wheelie packed beside her, although she wasn’t sure what she had put into it. The decision to leave had been, as in times previous, a spur of the moment one, made because she couldn’t bear those nasty voices in her head. This time had been different, however. She had really hurt him.

‘If you hadn’t wanted your precious baby so much, I’d still be normal and not a bloody psycho,’ she’d screamed at him as she walked away, the sound of her own sobs failing to drown out Aoife’s.

She’d come back of course, hours later, and she knew Michael was relieved, even if he didn’t want to show it. They should’ve tried to talk it out there and then, but they were both tired from the fight. The constant fighting. Fighting to make it through the days, the hours. This had been exactly three weeks before, and now the pair of them were walking on eggshells. It infuriated her how he always tried to say the right thing, always tried to give her space. If he could find it in himself to be as much of a cunt as she had been, then she wouldn’t need to carry so much guilt.

A crappy mother, a crappy wife, thought Siobhan as she peeled off the bedclothes and slid into the tracksuit bottoms that she’d strewn on her bedside locker just a few hours before. She picked up one of Michael’s hoodies from the shelf, not because of sentimentality but because the excess material hid her grotesque frame, the extra pouch that now hung around her waist, like an internal bum-bag. She inhaled as she peered into the cot at her sleeping daughter, longing to feel that special connection. Aoife’s thick lips smiled, something which Kathleen, Siobhan’s mother-in-law had insisted was just wind. Well of course it was just wind, Siobhan had thought. It seemed that Aoife was willing to settle in anyone’s arms but in the arms of her mother. Siobhan didn’t know how she felt towards Aoife, but it wasn’t love. It wasn’t hate, either. It was nothing.

What sort of mother feels nothing towards their own baby? A baby that she had yearned for since she was given her first baby doll by Santa at the age of just five years old? Three years of expensive and gruelling IVF had given Siobhan a daughter more beautiful than she could have ever imagined, and yet at that moment, Siobhan didn’t feel that she was cut out for years of self-sacrifice, of putting somebody else first.

Trying to stop herself sniffling in the dark, Siobhan padded towards the door, watching the sleepy scene. It was almost romantic, like a Cow & Gate ad. A gentle inner voice tried to persuade her to take back off her clothes, to lie down and try to sleep, but Siobhan thought it was too late now. She crept into the kitchen and rummaged through the medicine box, pocketing every painkiller she could find.

Soon this pain would be over.

Soon she would be over.

Despite the high winds earlier in the night, Siobhan hadn’t expected to be peppered with cold, misty rain when she opened the front door. She smiled to herself as she momentarily considered bringing an umbrella. Ha! She thought. People who are dead inside have little call for umbrellas.

She walked over the Whitehall bridge. The road was gleaming black from all the rain, and the usually busy Daingean Road was quiet. She had it planned: she would walk a few miles down the canal, then she would take all the pills until she felt a little delirious. At that moment she would succumb eternally to the murkiness, allowing herself to sink to the bottom. She supposed that people might be sad for a few days – her sister Aine would take it particularly hard – but in that moment she was grateful that her parents were no longer alive to feel the pain. She wished that she was more religious, that she believed that she would be reunited with her mam, whose voice she yearned to hear with every fibre of her being. But she wasn’t.

The wind was gathering pace again, a perfect time to venture nearer the edge. This way, she wouldn’t have to jump. She might have been just out for a midnight stroll when she was blown in. Nobody would have to know. She was just about to step closer to the edge when a gravelly voice behind her startled her:

‘Wild night to be out for a stroll.’

At first, Siobhan thought she was hearing things, because surely nobody in their right minds (she didn’t fall under that definition, she supposed) would be out at this hour? When she turned around, the sight of a shadow startled her. Despite the wind, she could detect the metallic smell of vodka from his breath. Yet this person was not staggering: he was trudging along slowly, as if carrying a great weight on his shoulders. She felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck, ready to go on the defensive.

‘Mind your own business,’ she said at last. Couldn’t he see that she wanted to be left alone? It occurred to her that he could be dangerous, maybe capable of rape or murder. But then again, wasn’t everyone? ‘I don’t have any money. Leave me alone.’

She half-jogged further up the canal path. It never occurred to her to walk back towards home, where there would be somebody waiting to protect her. What she did realise, however, is that she didn’t feel that she was worth protecting. She also noted that while she wanted to disappear, dissolve into the earth as though she never existed, she needed to have control over how it happened. God knows, she thought, it’s the only thing I seem to have any control over at the moment.

Her footsteps slowed, and when she was outside her own head she heard the hesitant footsteps behind her. The aroma of cigarette smoke was infused in the sharp October breeze. She sat down on the hill outside the old Daly farmhouse, inwardly cursing herself for doing so as the wetness crept in, leaving her derriere saturated. The violent wind had subsided; all she was left with was silence and self-disgust.

After a few moments, her companion crouched down beside her. He smelt of sweat, of old urine, of hopelessness. Bloody typical, she thought. Trust me to meet a drunk. Her partner inhaled, which started a violent coughing fit.

‘You ok?’ she asked, forgetting herself.

The man nodded. ‘Be grand in a minute,’ he said, wiping the tears from his eyes. ‘I’m well used to it by now.’ He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a long can.

‘You should quit the fags,’ Siobhan said, immediately hating herself for her own self-righteousness. Who was she to talk when she had the entire contents of her medicine box in her pocket, ready to take in one go?

‘I probably should do a lot of things,’ he answered her, his voice quiet. Siobhan heard the snapping of the can, and her stomach turned at the smell of fresh beer, presumably cheap. ‘You shouldn’t be out here so late. These parts can be dangerous for the likes of you.’ The beer trickled down his throat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

‘What do you mean, ‘the likes of me’?’

He waved his hand, fanning her words away. ‘You know exactly what I mean.’ He rummaged in his pocket. ‘Smoke?’

‘No.’ Her voice was firm. ‘I don’t smoke.’

‘Ha. It must be hard to be so bloody perfect.’

Siobhan was relieved to smell the smoke; sitting so close to him, her bloodhound-like sense of smell detected urine and old underarm sweat, with the slightest hint of shit. She yearned to escape, to be at one with the swirling brown water in front of her. She took a deep breath, then another. Already she felt like she was suffocating. It wasn’t the feeling of comfort that she had been looking for.

‘Perfect. Ha! If only.’ For the first time since they met, Siobhan considered how she must appear in her companion’s eyes: a silly little damsel in distress, a privileged housewife who couldn’t possibly know what real hardship felt like. ‘You don’t know anything about me.’ She stood up, putting her hand in her pocket, feeling safer as she held the pills in her hand. As long as she had a plan, however warped that plan might be, she felt grounded. More grounded than she had felt in a long time.

Her stomach turned to bile as she thought about events earlier that day. It had started as an average day, or at least what she now considered to be average. She found it difficult to believe that just a matter of months before she was the manager of the Tullamore branch of the Bank of Ireland, bringing in quite a generous pay cheque. They’d squirrelled most of it away, of course, being sensible and thrifty. Aoife had been a surprise, a most welcome surprise. Her mere existence was testament to the fact that even the most highly paid and expensive doctors can get things wrong sometimes.

Aoife had awoken at six that morning, demanding her morning feed. Siobhan should have been well-rested; Aoife had slept since half nine the night before. Instead Siobhan had laid awake all night, unable to turn off her brain which was thinking at breakneck speed. What if she had dropped Aoife when she nearly tripped over that loose tile in the bathroom earlier? Aoife’d had a tiny bit of red in her spit-up earlier which Siobhan had assumed was from the strawberry she’d eaten earlier that day, but now she was worried that it was blood. She should’ve checked, and she didn’t. What sort of mother would allow her own child to bleed to death?

Siobhan couldn’t live with the constant inner panic anymore. It didn’t take a genius to work out that Aoife would be better off being looked after by someone more experienced, someone who would appreciate her for who she was. She warmed inside as she thought of Aoife’s blonde eyelashes, the tiny half-moons of her fingernails, the dimples that appeared when she smiled. Aoife was perfect. She deserved better than the fighting, than a mother who didn’t know what she was doing.

Another hacking cough disturbed Siobhan from her daydreaming. She stood up, and adjusted her jacket.

‘Anyway, it was nice to meet you. I really must…’

‘It was this very spot,’ the man said to her, gesturing towards the canal. ‘Where they found her. You know, I come here every night, try to work out why… She didn’t even leave a note.’ He wiped his chin on the sleeve of his jacket. ‘They say she killed herself, but I reckon that’s bullshit. She had three kids… she was happy.’ He lit a cigarette, the blue threaded smoke lingering in the calmness; the wind had passed, as Siobhan had known it would. ‘I’d only seen her the night before. She was smiling, laughing, dolled up to the nines…’

‘Who was?’ She only asked because she assumed it rude not to.

‘Karen. Oh, Karen. Now I’ve made a lot of mistakes – I’m sure that’s obvious – but she definitely wasn’t one of them.’ He pulled hard on the cigarette, as if he was seeking comfort. ‘She had it all, believe it or not – looks, brains – her mother’s doing of course.’ He crushed the empty can into the palm of his hand. ‘You hear stories, don’t you? Tell-tale signs, people losing interest in their lives -goodbye notes – we got none of that. No explanation.’

‘I’m so sorry.’ She didn’t know what else to say.

He shrugged. ‘They say men don’t talk. I don’t talk about Karen. I don’t know… maybe I’m hurt, ashamed… She could’ve fucking said something.’ The trees rustled gently in the breeze. ‘In the beginning, it was so simple. She’d been selfish, a coward – I thought maybe it’d been some silly woman hormonal thing, but they have pills for that now, don’t they?’

Siobhan scoffed. ‘You men are all the same. You think that solutions are so simple. And that we’re hysterical little women who know nothing about hardship. You have no idea what it’s like to have no control over your emotions, having to act all normal when your head is completely frazzled.’ Her voice started to break as she thought of her daughter at home. ‘How it feels to be completely useless and to have someone depend on you…’ Her chest shook with hacking sobs; she could barely catch her breath. The man looked up at her, nodding his head.

‘There,’ he said. ‘It’s out there. You’ve said it. So you’re a crap mum.’ His candidacy surprised her. ‘I suppose you beat her black and blue when she cries…’

‘Well, of course not…’ She was taken aback.

‘Or spend your money on high heels instead of baby formula.’

Siobhan’s fists clenched. ‘How dare you…’

‘Or head off for evenings out and leave bubs home alone. Leave a bottle in the cot, be grand.’

She laughed at the absurdity of the last one. She knew he was joking now.

‘You’d be surprised,’ he shrugged. ‘I’ve seen it. But Karen wasn’t like that, and neither are you.’ He stood up, wiping his hands on his thighs. ‘Go home. Get a nice hot bath.’ Siobhan screeched as he slid his hand into her oversized jacket pocket, taking out the pills and throwing them into the canal. ‘Things will be better in the morning. You’ll see.’

‘How did you know?’

‘Woman, you’ve been rooting in your pocket all fecking night.  This isn’t my first time to do this, you know. After Karen, I swore never again. Not on my watch, anyway. If you wanted to kill yourself, you would’ve done it by now. We’ve been here all night.’ He nodded at the orange rising sun and grinned. ‘For all you knew, I could’ve helped you. Murdered you. Look at the state of me. Wouldn’t blame you for making that assumption.’

‘I guess we can never know what’s going on in other people’s lives.’

‘Nope.’ He started to walk away. ‘Unless we choose to tell people. How can people save us if they don’t know that we’re drowning?’

She watched him walk away, and how he walked with a sense of purpose. She supposed he had nowhere to go. But, she realised, he had done an important thing that night – he had saved her life. She was still shaking when she got to the front door. A white-faced Michael greeted her, his face filling with relief as he beheld hers.

‘Thank God,’ he said as she broke down, wrapping his protective arms around her. ‘I was so worried, I thought you might’ve done something stupid…’ Both their faces were awash with tears. ‘I’m so sorry… I’m so glad you’re okay.’ He squeezed her closer to him.

And then Siobhan whispered the words she had always found so hard to say:

‘Michael, I’m not okay. I think I need help.’

He nodded, and finally Siobhan felt the weightlessness she had been craving.

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Something Deep Inside

Three years later, I still can’t make up my mind what I want. I really thought that what I wanted was to be a full-time freelance writer, with nothing else to bother me during working hours – just me and my desk. I tell people I am writing a novel, or at least, trying to. So why have I just committed to spending the rest of this year, and some of next year doing Disability Studies in Maynooth? Don’t get me wrong – I have no regrets. It looks like an interesting course and it’ll be handy to have if I ever do decide to go back into employment in the disability sector.

I’ve had a really productive summer (evidently not blogging-wise but you can’t have it all). In February I was co-opted onto the Board of the National CIL which was a huge honour, and I’ve been involved in some interesting and thought-provoking projects. Most recently I attended an Independent Living workshop in Offaly which was facilitated by a fellow activist. The aim of the workshop was to get back to the roots of Independent Living and to reinforce the idea that as disabled people, we are the experts in our own needs. It was a great session.

One of the questions the facilitator asked us was ‘What are the barriers to Independent Living?’ Loads of great answers were given: lack of Personal Assistance, lack of accessible housing and transport. But I, ever awkward and different, gave the answer of ‘internalised oppression’, you know, just for the craic. The facilitator smiled.

‘Big words,’ she said. ‘Would you like to explain what that means?’

‘Sure.’ My hands were sticky with sweat. ‘Internalised oppression is when you come to believe all the negative labels given to you from outside sources.  It’s when you have been told and reminded of your limitations so much that you begin to believe them. As time goes on, you start to place limitations on yourself to the  extent where you hold yourself back from achieving what you are truly capable of.’

I have been involved one way or another in disability activism for the last fourteen years. I have seen people fighting for housing and personal assistance and accessible transport. Any progress in disability rights that was made prior to the recession has essentially been wiped out. (You are free to argue this point; I love nothing more than a good old-fashioned debate). Look, it took Ireland twelve years to ratify the United Nations Conventions for the Rights of People of Disabilities. Yet there is a long way to go before access to Personal Assistance or accessible housing will be recognised as basic rights. We are in the throes of the worst housing crisis this country has ever seen. Many families are living in abject poverty; it was just reported this week that current childcare costs can average twenty percent of household income. As always, the supports needed by disabled people to live independently are considered a luxury.

Is it selfish, given the current economic climate, for disabled people (aka people disabled by our society) to be demanding more? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. In fact, I think disabled  people have been very accommodating over the last few years. There was barely a whimper when the charges for medical card prescriptions were introduced. The Mobility Allowance disappeared almost without warning, with nothing to replace it. in fact the only time disabled people caused a fuss in Ireland was when James Reilly callously threatened to retract a massive amount of funding from the Personal Assistant Service in 2012. Activists slept outside the Dail in the freezing cold for two nights in protest, and subsequently the cuts were reversed, a momentous occasion in Ireland’s disability history.

And as I watched the entire rotten saga unfold from the comfort of my armchair at home, I felt inspired. Not in a sort of ‘aren’t these cripples so brave’ kind of way, but it was the first time I realised that I had been so blind. It was 2012 and my little girl wasn’t even a year old yet. I had spent the whole year fighting my own battle, trying to prove to so-called health professionals that I was not a danger to my own baby. A year where I demonstrated with grit that I was more than physically capable of raising a child to the many onlookers around me, but then spent my nights lying awake, wrestling with fear and self-doubt, allowing my own tears to sting my face. Would I be physically able to raise a toddler? Would some well-meaning person report me for being a bad parent if I made a mistake? If I was struggling and had to ask for help for whatever reason (not necessarily disability related), would my child be removed from me? And yet, there was hope. People out there were protesting, demanding to be seen as equal. Demanding respect, demanding their rights.

And it was then that I realised that I was my own worst enemy. I was succumbing to fear rather than standing up and questioning the way I was treated and perceived. It took a long time for me to believe that I was a ‘proper’  and capable mother because parenthood isn’t perceived to be the norm for disabled people in Ireland. There’s horror stories and rumours everywhere. Most damaging in my case was that little internalised voice that led me to believe I was incapable.

My friends, I would put it to you that this little voice is the single biggest obstacle to true equality in Ireland. This is the voice that tells us that we are less than, the voice that  advises us not to voice how we feel ‘because no-one likes an angry crip,’ the voice that tells us that if we try harder to conform that one day we might be accepted as equals.

And this is the obstacle to true equality that I predict will be the hardest to remove. Why? Because whether your impairment is congenital or acquired, social conditioning dictates that *you* are different, that *you* must do your best to fit in.

I don’t know for sure at the time of writing this blog whether I want to work in writing or disability, or if (ideally) I get to do both.

What I do know is: Internalised oppression, I see you. I am naming you. And until my dying breath, I will strive (hopefully with others) to always challenge you.