The Call of Birds

by P. Kearney Byrne

Byrne-Birds-ArtworkThe sides of the ditches are twined with brambles, rushes, wide-stemmed umbellifers. In the cleft, thin streams of brown water seep across the sodden turf. My father holds my hand as we walk the fields inspecting the cattle, checking the hedgerows and water troughs. When we come to the dikes, he slings me on his back, and using his stick to balance, he leaps across, like a strong horse. When I get older, I bring my own stick. There’s no need to hold his hand, and I make my own greedy scramble across the drains. When the neighbour’s sons tease and call me ‘the daddy’s girl,’ I shout at them to ‘mind your own business,’ but my face flames with pride.

Throughout the long summers, my father and I come in from the fields, hot-cheeked and hungry. We sit down to a breakfast of fried eggs and rashers, homemade brown bread, and a big pot of tea. At weekends, we have porridge with sugar and cream, and slices of warm rhubarb tart. I try to eat like my father, to wolf down my food, laughing and talking, to scrape my chair against the stone floor as I stand up afterwards, wiping my chin the way he does. After each meal, my father kisses my mother on the cheek and thanks her for the food.

I never kiss Mammy.

I am fourteen years old when the tractor slips backwards and pins Daddy to the shed wall. The prong on the hitch drives through his rib cage, crushing his left lung, killing him. My older brother, Donal, finds him.

Donal takes over the farm and he tries to take my father’s place for me. But he’s only seven years older than I am and he hasn’t a hope. I run wild, doing as I please, swearing at my mother, telling Donal to go fuck himself. I mitch off school most days, stealing money from Mammy’s purse, smoking fags and drinking cider in the fields behind the mart.

The day I turn eighteen, I leave the small house in Leitrim and go to work in London. I do all right. It suits me, moving through the city, doing whatever I want. I make friends and I feel free. Every now and then, a flounce of wind or the raw call of a bird cracks the city open, and the wild skies and tangled hedgerows of home rise up in my blood; and then I send a postcard addressed to Donal and Mammy, once or twice a short letter. My mother never writes back, but Donal does. He keeps me up to date with the farm, tells me about the new house he’s building on the land. He invites me to his wedding and he doesn’t mind when I don’t show up.

‘Sure, you’ve got your own life over there,’ he says.

I get into the habit of never going home, but I keep up contact with Donal, and occasionally, I meet up with him and Geraldine in London. They’re kind to me, as if I’m delicate or strange. Once or twice, Geraldine asks me why I don’t visit my mother.

‘Visit Mammy?’ I laugh through my cigarette smoke. ‘What for? Mammy and I never clicked.’

James and I move in together. He’s Scottish, and he doesn’t have much contact with his family. When he asks about mine, I tell him about Daddy and Donal.

‘What about your Ma?’ he says.

‘Mammy and I never hit it off,’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ he says, and he pulls me close. ‘I know what you mean. Like me and Da.’

We get married in a registry office and get a mortgage for a terraced house in Tooting Broadway. We plant a pseudoacacia tree in the back garden. It grows like the clappers, casting a golden light into the kitchen. We’re delighted with it and that delight spills over into me becoming pregnant. I give up cigarettes and alcohol and I don’t miss them for a second. By nine months, I’m absolutely huge, and I know in my heart it’s a boy. James is with me all through labour. When they put Luke into my arms, I see his little, knotty whorls of hair, the same burnt-orange of his father’s curls, and I fall in love with him instantly. He’s a sleepy, happy, easy-going baby and he makes being a mother a piece of cake. He grows like the clappers too, and James and I indulge ourselves; we call him our ‘Golden Light.’ We can’t wait to have brothers and sisters for him. I’m brimming with confidence.

During my second pregnancy, the nausea gets worse and worse, as though I’m being poisoned. I have to give up working. I tell myself I can enjoy the extra time with Luke, but I’m filled with foreboding. I’m convinced I’ll miscarry, or somehow lose the baby. I’m a bag of nerves. I try to hide it from James, telling him it’s nothing, just exhaustion, but my fears crawl about inside me, and as time goes on, I find less and less words for them. I have weird cravings for nicotine and wine. I manage to stay off the booze, but I start nicking fags from James’s cigarette pack and hiding them in the kitchen cupboards. When James has gone to work and Luke is having his nap, I smoke, outside in the back garden, hiding under the pseudoacia tree in case the neighbours can see me from their upstairs window, swishing my mouth with peppermint tea before I pick Luke up from his cot, brushing my teeth three or four times before James comes home.

The labour is long and hard, just as I knew it would be. It goes on and on and on. Eventually, it’s over and they try to put the baby into my arms. I turn away, empty and sickened. James takes her.

‘Don’t worry,’ he says to me. ‘You’re pure done in, that’s all.’

I’m ill for over a year. The psychiatrist calls it ‘postpartum depression,’ and he puts me on antidepressants. I don’t care what he calls it or what he gives me; nothing relieves me, either of the longing to feel normal enough to want to look after the baby, or the thick grey blanket of my disinterest in her. I pull the pillow over my head at night when she cries because I can’t bear the sound of her, and James has to feed and change her, as well as go to work the next day. I panic when I’m left alone with her. She stiffens when I pick her up, and arches away from me, as if she knows how I feel and she doesn’t want me either. Sometimes, she screams all day long, only stopping when James comes home. The strain on James shows. Even poor little Luke tries his best to help with his new sister.

‘Why is she crying?’ he keeps asking me. ‘Why is she crying?’

‘How the fuck should I know?’ I yell at him and that starts him crying as well as the baby.

We’re all exhausted. I don’t know how we keep going. The doctor says we need someone to help me with the baby. He recommends a woman called Ellen. We can only afford her three mornings a week. I don’t like her much and I seethe with envy when I see how easily she deals with Samantha. I make it hard for Ellen by being rude and angry with her, and James and I fight all the time about my ‘attitude.’ The whole thing is hellish and after three months Ellen says she thinks it’s ‘counterproductive’ her being there. I tell her she’s damn right it’s ‘counter-bloody-productive’ and to ‘get the hell out of my house.’

I struggle along on my own again during the daytime, but in the evenings, I start suffering great useless wallops of jealousy seeing James and Samantha together, watching her snuggle into him, one tiny hand clutching at his shirt. It feels like I’ve lost my second baby forever but I haven’t got enough energy or interest to fight for her.

Then a stupid, simple thing happens. One day, even though I’m shattered with tiredness, I force myself to take Luke and the baby and go to Tooting Common for a walk. It’s warm for March and we haven’t been out of the house for days. I leave the car in the car park and head towards the pond. Luke trots along beside the buggy and, for once, Samantha is asleep. A neighbour, an old Jamaican woman I haven’t seen for ages, stops to talk to me. She bends over the buggy, kissing Samantha on the forehead, then straightens herself up.

‘Look at that child!’ she says to me, shaking her head. ‘Look at that child and her lookin exactly like her madda! See you both havin that black, black hair and that little snubby nose there.’ I look down at the sleeping baby, and for the first time, I understand what it means to be her mother; that she’s my daughter and nothing can take that away. My heart opens towards the little black-haired creature in the pram and a yearning to care for her surges through me. It doesn’t make me any less clumsy or tired or inadequate with her, but from then on I’m better at managing the strange mixed-up feelings I have, and I’m better at talking to James about it. I say things that make me sound like a nutter, but I don’t care.

‘I know she’s just a baby,’ I whisper one night in bed, ‘but sometimes I feel she hates me.’

‘You’re doing great,’ James says. ‘You’re coming through. Let’s just all hang in there.’

It takes another year for things to settle down, but eventually I come off the antidepressants, and in spite of everything, Samantha grows into a healthy, strong-willed toddler.

Neither James nor I ever mention having another baby, and we never discuss that we’ve never discussed it. The years pass and I try to accept the fact that my relationship with Luke, my easy-going eldest boy, is so different from my relationship with my daughter, but I’m ashamed of how easily I flare up with Samantha, saying things I wouldn’t dream of saying to James or to Luke; horrible, out-of-control things that make me hate myself.

‘Fiery fuckers, the pair of you,’ James says, when Samantha and I have yet another row. ‘And you don’t even have the red hair for it.’

One Saturday, I come in with a carload of shopping from Sainsbury’s to find that Samantha and the dog have tramped mud straight through the living room and up along the carpet on the stairs. Samantha knows she should take off her boots and leave them to dry on the back porch, just like she knows to leave the dog in the kitchen after they’ve been traipsing about in Tooting Common. She’s also aware that I’ve spent the morning cleaning the house. It’s not the first time she’s done this, wrecked my morning’s work as soon as my back is turned. I’m tired and I’m furious.

Samantha!’ I yell up the stairs. There’s no answer, so I go up to her bedroom and stand in the doorway. She looks up from her computer, sullen and defiant. She’s fourteen years old, but looks sixteen; her hair dyed purple at the ends, her nose and tongue pierced, her black tee-shirt with a ‘Fuck U 2’ on the back of it. I see her muddy boots thrown onto a pile of dirty washing in the corner of the room, and the dog lolling, filthy and wet, on the bed. I shout at the dog to get himself downstairs and he creeps past me, his eyes rolling nervously and his head and tail pressed to the floor. I point at the corner of the room and order Samantha to pick up her boots and her dirty laundry. I tell her to take the filthy duvet cover off her bed and to get downstairs and clean up the mucky carpet. The row escalates, arriving quickly at the usual place.

‘You’re always picking on me,’ she says over her shoulder, still flicking through images on her computer. ‘Nag, nag, nag. You’re such a fucking nag.’

‘Don’t you dare swear at me!’ I say. ‘You know damn well not to drag mud up the stairs and you know that dog isn’t allowed in your bedroom. You’re always trying to wind me up. Either that, or you’re a complete bloody imbecile!’

‘Well maybe that’s it then,’ she says, standing up, glowering at me from under her black eye shadow. ‘Maybe I am a “complete bloody imbecile.”’

‘Oh, grow up, Samantha!’ I say. ‘Why don’t you just cut the crap for once in your life? Just cut the crap and grow up.’

She’d started slouching towards her bed but she pauses, turns, straightens up and looks at me. She tilts her head. There’s something new, something cool and adult in how she does this and it unnerves me. There’s a long silence.

‘You don’t really like me, do you?’ she says then. ‘You never have.’ She’s not fighting me and it’s not really a question. It’s just a statement. It’s what she truly believes. I’m so shaken by her conviction that I have to sit down and I go into her room and sit on the mucky duvet cover on her bed. Instead of ordering me out, she comes and sits beside me. It’s the start of things. A month later, I’m in weekly therapy with a psychotherapist called Max.

Max doesn’t say much, but when he does, it leaves me gasping. I’ve been seeing him for six months, sitting on his worn leather sofa every week, telling him over and over about the battles I have with my daughter, itemizing each of our rows, describing how Samantha seems set on provoking me but has such a different relationship with James, how she thinks I don’t love her, telling him all about the postnatal depression, about what it was like trying to care for her when I had no feelings for her, about how I can’t seem to get it right with her. I talk a blue streak in every session, finally telling him how ashamed of myself I am. That’s the day he asks me what my relationship with my own mother was like.

‘What the fuck has that got to do with anything?’ I say.

‘Postnatal depression sometimes runs in families,’ he says.

It’s the first letter I’ve written to my mother in over eighteen years. I don’t say a lot, just let her know a bit about my life and ask a bit about hers. I post it only when I’m sure that I’m not depending on a reply. Two months later, I get a short letter from her. Her handwriting hasn’t changed; an old-fashioned script with a random distribution of capital letters and commas. In the last paragraph she says that she has willed the house and the remaining two acres of land to Donal, that there’s a thousand Euros for me, and a stipulation that I’m to take anything I want from the house to remember my father by. She tells me that she won’t be changing the will. She signs the letter, ‘Yours sincerely, Mammy.’

Over the coming months, I continue writing to her; short letters with small bits of information about my life in London. She continues to answer. She includes details about Donal and Geraldine and their children. She tells me she’s had oil central heating put in the house. When I ask when she got it, she says it was fifteen years ago. She keeps signing her letters ‘Yours Sincerely, Mammy,’ but we get to a point where she says that, yes, she’d like to meet her grandchildren and my husband. It feels right. It’s what we both want.

James says it’s a good thing, the whole business, and he says we need to start involving Luke and Samantha. Max says the same. We’d brought the kids to Glasgow once or twice to meet James’s mother, but it wasn’t a big deal, and they’d met their Irish cousins a couple of times when Geraldine and Donal visited with their two boys. But, apart from joining James in a few jokes about me being from the bog, they’ve never asked about Ireland and they’ve never been there. As far as Luke and Samantha are concerned, their family is just the four of us living in London. It seems strange to bring the whole thing up with them and I feel awkward. I tell them over dinner one evening that I’m thinking of going back for a visit, to see my family.

‘Would you like to come with me?’ I ask them. ‘Meet my mother, meet your cousins again?’

‘Sure,’ Luke says, wiping his plate with a piece of bread. ‘Cool.’

‘Yeah,’ says Samantha. ‘Get a sniff of our boggy old roots, man.’

We decide we’ll wait a few weeks until school’s finished for the summer and then we’ll book tickets to Knock, hire a car, maybe stay a few days in Leitrim and then go to Galway or Donegal for the rest of the week. That’s the plan, and the kids seem OK with it, if not hugely enthusiastic. I write to my mother to tell her and she writes back saying she’s looking forward to seeing us. It’s all settled.

Two weeks later, I get a phone call from Donal.

‘Mammy passed away last night,’ he says. ‘Just died, in her sleep, just like that.’

Instead of the holiday, we go to the funeral in Carrick-on-Shannon. Donal and Geraldine want us to stay with them, but I tell them it’s too much to put on them with all the other arrangements and I book us into the Landmark Hotel in Carrick. But I ask Donal if I can stay on at Mammy’s for an extra few nights after the funeral.

‘Course you can,’ he says. ‘Geraldine will fix it up for you, put the heating on. But be warned; it hasn’t changed much.’

The day after the burial, I drive James and the kids to Knock in the hired car for their early morning flight back to Gatwick. They have breakfast in the sky room café watching the runway. They love the food and pile their plates high.

‘Aren’t you hungry, Mum?’ Luke wants to know.

‘I’ll eat later,’ I tell him.

‘Tomorrow’s your birthday,’ James says at the departure gate.

‘I know,’ I say, and give them each a hug. ‘You can surprise me with a clean house when I come back.’

‘You going to be all right, Mum?’ Luke asks me.

‘She’ll be fine, bro,’ Samantha says, digging him in the side. ‘Chillax and let her do what she needs to do.’

Over their heads, James smiles at me.

I drive back to Carrick and park on the main street. It’s just after nine and the butcher is still laying out his meats at the counter. I ask him for a half dozen pork sausages. He tells me his wife makes them. I buy rashers and free range eggs from him. Then I walk down to Glancy’s Supervalu. I get a litre of organic whole milk and a carton of cream, a pound of Kerrygold butter and a small bag of brown sugar, a loaf of brown soda bread and a packet of Odlum’s porridge oats as well as a packet of Barry’s Gold Blend loose leaf tea and a homemade rhubarb tart. The girl at the counter gives me a box to carry the lot in.

‘You’re all set up,’ she says.

I take the Leitrim Road out of Carrick, down through Keshkerrigan, and off towards Glennamban. I use the small road to the house so I don’t have to pass Geraldine and Donal’s.

Inside, the heat is on and Geraldine has the range lit. Donal was right. It’s just as I remembered, the smell of coal and wood and stone and cooking, and without needing to think about what I’m doing, I unpack the box of food and put it on the kitchen counter before I get my case from the car.

Geraldine has made up a bed in what used to be my bedroom. The old blankets are gone and she’s used a duvet and white cotton sheets, and a new-looking feather pillow. I put my case on the wooden chair and hang my coat on the door hook.

In the living room there’s a wide screen television where the black and white telly used to be. But the armchair beside the range is the same and the table with the wooden chairs around it is the one we always ate at. In the kitchen, there’s a different fridge, but otherwise, everything is just what was there when I left; the brown teapot with the tea cosy in the shape of a cottage, the stovetop kettle, the black cast iron pan, my mother’s flowery apron hanging on the hook behind the door.

I get to work, putting the kettle on to boil and setting the table. I take the soda bread out and slice up a quarter of it. I cut a big chunk of butter into the pan and when it’s bubbling, get the rashers and sausages onto it. I slide the rhubarb tart onto the old tin plate my mother used to use for baking and put it and another plate in the range to warm.

I have my breakfast in the quiet, looking out the small window. Instead of getting up from the table and washing the dishes, I sit there and pour more tea, eat another slice of rhubarb tart, and after eating that, I sit with just a cup of tea, my fingers curled around the cup. Outside, the fresh May breeze taps at the windowpane and the whitethorns flicker in the hedges. Outside, there are fields waiting to be walked, and in here there are old rooms with my breath in them. But for these few days, all that matters is that I have my meals at this table, listen to the radio for a bit, perhaps sleep in the armchair by the range. There’s nothing more to it than that, and there’s nothing more I need from being here; nothing more to the whole thing than this deep moment of peace.

Photo credit

About P. Kearney Byrne

P Kearney Byrne’s work has won the Francis MacManus Award (2012) and the Bryan MacMahon Award (2014). In 2013 she was long-listed in the UK Sunday Times EFG Short Story Competition and this year she was a finalist in the inaugural Hamlin Garland Award for Fiction (Beloit Fiction Journal, USA). She has work forthcoming in the Winter Issue of Per Contra Magazine. Phil is currently enrolled on an MA programme in University College Dublin. Originally from Dublin, she and her partner now live in Co Leitrim, Ireland.

Photo credit—Marie O'Kelly.

P. Kearney Byrne

P. Kearney Byrne is online at