On the way home from the hospital I asked my mother would she be disappointed if I started smoking again. We stopped at a shop and went home. I went for a lie down; naturally I hadn’t slept much, if at all over the four days. At one point, one of the nurses talked me into dropping the baby down to the nursery so I could get some sleep. It was a futile exercise, and I ended up padding down the corridor myself to find him. Later I told my mother I’d had a good look at all the other babies in there.
“And do you know what, Mam?”
“Let me guess; he was the best looking baby in the nursery?”
“But it’s true!”
And it was; I still see the beauty of him. I gaze on him now, in a trance-memory and I remember the series of precious moments. And ordinary moments: magnolia shower gel someone gave me; reading the Irish Times for probably the first time in my life; a visit from a bishop.
“I hope he gives you years of happiness.” The Bishop said and the baby began to cry.
There were a few of those unfair moments. They stung and they sting still. Although the worst of these moments has been exorcised since: leaving the hospital without my baby. I stood inside the door, while my mother went to find my father to bring the car over – perhaps it was raining. I stood there alone as a young couple walked out past me, lost in their own world and their brand new bundle of joy.
I began to speak to God differently. Up to this, my internal dialogue was riddled with guilt for not going to mass – or for enjoying the freedom of not having to go, now that I was too old to be told anything. But this moment was unnecessary I told Him (I give Him His capital letter here for clarity only; the day I changed the word ‘God’ to ‘Universe’ expanded my notions of what divinity really is and cynics be-damned.)
“Do You have to be so cruel?” I asked Him as they walked past me.
I once saw a ghost. Well, I more than once saw a ghost and I don’t rightly care what you think about that; see them I did. But one summer, I took a job as a temp in the office of the National Art Gallery. There wasn’t much work to do, I kept novels in my drawer and read them when the coast was clear. But I did enjoy the experience of working in a place like that. There was always someone coming through with a story; the Caravaggio had only recently been discovered and the buzz of that still hung in the air; curators and historians had, I discovered, their own cult following. There were three of us in the office and we all got on; if we’d had Facebook back then, or even email, we’d still be in touch I’m sure of it. Next to our office was the room where paintings by old masters were restored by people of exceptional ability. Every day I marvelled at the wonders of a world heretofore unknown. I loved everything about the place. Except the corridor where the stationery was kept and where the loo was. It was old fashioned in the extreme: a wooden, square seat about fifty paces from a door with no lock. That room was fine, provided nobody burst in on you; it was the corridor that was the problem, especially towards the end, near the stationery room. On my first day, after I returned with envelopes the other girls asked me if I’d sensed a ghost. Without a shadow of a doubt I told them. But she’s not in the loo, and she’s not in the stationery room. She’s very much stuck at the end of the corridor, near the window.
“She?” They asked. “How do you know?”
“I saw her.”
The other girls shivered. They’d sensed something but they had half assumed it was their imagination.
One Friday night, I talked about her with friends. I knew she was young, I sensed she was frightened but I certainly didn’t feel afraid of her. Someone suggested she didn’t know she was dead; apparently, a child had died in a fire in the Shelbourne Hotel years and years ago and she’d haunted a room until some exorcist came along and told her it was ok, she was actually dead and she should move along to a better place. And it worked. The child left and guests no longer complained of ghosts. I resolved to go in on Monday and mentally communicate with her, let her know it was ok to move on. When I got to the corridor, she was gone. Nary a sense of her. Everyone said it. She was gone, for sure.
Where do I go to with these tangents? Only to explain to you the sense of what it meant to me to walk past the ghost of myself twelve years later, To know, that Geoff and I were that couple and Aisling was that bundle of joy and as we passed her, she dissipated into the clear air, a trapped memory, off to a better place.
That lonely day, back home in my own bed, I tossed and turned. A mother without her baby. I heard him cry. I mean I actually heard him inside my head, like an echo. He needed me. I phoned the woman that would foster him for the next few weeks, while I cleared my head and made MY DECISION. Imagine that there are women that will do that? Angels walking around earth, minding the newborn babies of the Great Undecided. Families who fall in love and then say goodbye six weeks on, over and over again. I will never forget this kindness. I am forever bonded to this woman although the last time I saw her was the last time I saw my child. I told her what I knew: he liked to sleep on his tummy; she could expect him to wake up every two hours; that he was smiling already, did she notice that? It’s not wind. She listened and thanked me and told me I could visit if I wanted. I said I would love that. I put the phone down and slept the sleep of the partially relieved.
We had developed our relationship, that baby and me, over the nine months, and now I was alone. No little kicks to remind me he was there; no bump to rest my hand on, no intelligence that might hear my thoughts. It was like the sound suddenly cutting out in the middle of a beautiful film. I knew I had to just sit with it. I was held of course, by my family and I had close friends, but what comfort can you offer a mother without her child? There’s no way of knowing how long before the sound comes back. No point railing against it, there is nothing you can do. Just watch it in silence. Or find something else to do.
My two friends had to practically drag me along, but I did eventually go and sign up to help out in an amateur production of Grease. It was already well into rehearsals so there were no parts left – which, to be honest, was what convinced me in the end to turn up. I was assigned as the Props person, which seemed straightforward enough. I was given a list and I had to ‘beg, borrow or steal’ everything on it. My mother would brace herself for years after, as she sat in the audience, waiting for the curtains to open and see what bits of furniture from her house had made it into the current production.
But what a world I had stumbled into! The thrill of being backstage, play-acting with the rest of the crew, laughing as silently as you could so you didn’t disturb the performers on stage; I realize now that the crew I was working with were very badly behaved as that sort of thing goes, but it was amateur and it was the 80’s. People didn’t care so much and besides, stage crew was made up of people who were roped in at the last minute – perhaps they had even built the set and the entire production was beholden to them. In fact, I believe it was the Stage Manager who at one point lifted me up in the air and threatened to fling me out onto the stage in the middle of ‘Worse Things I Could Do’. For the laugh. I met my future husband in the wings of that very production. I whispered to him that I had planted his microphone in the picnic basket. He thought this was clever of me, and then enquired as to whether he might have a fresh burger the following night; the current three day old one was getting harder to chew on stage and he needed to have finished his mouthful before his song. He was playing Doody and his one solo song was the song ‘Mooning’. Everyone fell in love with Geoff when he sang that song, every gender, every age. Except me: I wasn’t ready to love anyone, although I did set my sights on him one night after the show.
“Geoff.” Was all I said to my friend.
“He’s going out with someone.” She said. And that was that. I looked around for the next best looking guy and so it went on until gradually over the next two years, my armour loosened and I stopped seeing all men as bastards. That’s a proper love story, and one for another day perhaps. Meanwhile, I had found my calling! This crazy world of show business had me in its grip. I threw myself into the joy of it all, but generally only backstage. I did my time on stage however, as some will attest to: I think I can dance, but it’s an illusion that I’m generally left to enjoy. That’s all well and good on the dance floor but on stage, in front of people…quite another. My director couldn’t afford to be fussy that year, it was slim pickings on the performer front, and so I was tolerated. The choreographer did pair me off with Geoff though, which kept me from twirling off stage (remember, I’m a tiny bit accident prone). We may have met backstage but it was while I was dancing with him that we began to find each other interesting.
The following year I was asked to direct the show. That’s such a lie; the following year, our musical society had fallen into disrepair and was being held together with sticky tape and chewing gum by a few dedicated soldiers. The obvious choice for director had burnt herself out, keeping it all going – at least that’s my guess as to why no one came forward to direct what was to be our phoenix from the ashes: The Sound of Music. Build it and they will come – or in our case, put on a show with lots of kids in it and they will come. I tended to plod along and blurt out loud the notions that were in my head at any given time. I’d had an idea for a while now that I might like to direct, and more, that I might be good at it. The chairman had no choice; our group never brought in professionals, we were unashamed of our status as an amateur company, and the whole purpose of our existence was to expose people to theatrical experiences they might otherwise never have. I felt sorry for him; I was flighty, some might say, a flibbertigibbet, a will-o-the-wisp, a clown! I had no experience whatsoever, save what I had picked up from the wings. But he let me do it. I got my chance because of him and the rest of that team. It was a beautiful distraction and it led me down many exciting paths, including my career. You might say, I had climbed every mountain until I found my dream…