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MARY O'DONNELL

 

 

 

Mary O'DonnellMary O’Donnell is the author of eleven books, both poetry and fiction, and has also co-edited a book of translations from the Galician. She is the 2011 winner of the Fish International Short Story Prize. Her titles include the best-selling literary novel The Light-Makers, Virgin and the Boy, and The Elysium Testament; as well as poetry such as The Place of Miracles, Unlegendary Heroes, and her most recent critically acclaimed sixth collection The Ark Builders (Arc Publications UK, 2009). She has been a teacher, journalist, theatre critic, and presented and scripted three series of poetry programmes for RTÉ Radio. In December 2001 she was elected to the membership of Aosdana.

 

 

 

 

Lifting Skin

  

The day after her arrival, a Dublin family pulled up just when she had settled her things on the desk at the open window. Outdoorsy and slim, like people in an ad for breakfast cereals, they unstrapped two prawn-like infants from their car-seats, then made their noisy way into the terraced holiday home beside hers. Although they weren’t particularly friendly, that suited Dervla, and she waved at them each day as she pulled away in the car, smiling without stopping to chat. Rain or shine, she wore square, soot-black Dior sunglasses that had cost nearly half a month’s salarybig square beautiful frames, perfect for Cannes, too glamorous for Carrigbwee. The next door mother often sat in her sun-porch, herself wearing fashion shades, a mobile-phone clamped to her ear as her infants played. Her pale blonde, very silky hair slid over both shoulders. Unconsciously, Dervla adjusted her own glasses. A public nurse visiting an elderly neighbour back in Dublin had stopped her the previous week right on the street – enquiring in the gentle but not judgemental voice of a caring professional – if everything was all right. Now, down by the coast, she didn’t want to spark misguided interest. She would drive around the cliff road to Neptune Bay, dipping into a tunnelling laneway, down more steeply still to the bluff above the beach.

            By the time the third week arrived, her routine was impregnable. Neptune Bay was safe, she thought. The sand was coarse enough to ensure it would never be popular with the families that clustered on the yellow beach nearer the village. Here, she could be alone. She was thankful for the four month break from the department of Celtic Studies. Not only could she sit it out for these weeks, but she was making progress on a paper provisionally called The Celts in the Iberian Peninsula. Work on the myths of identity and history seemed a far cry from what was going on beneath her face, as it healed from recent cosmetic surgery of the drastic kinda full yanking up of jaw-line and sagging cheeks, the removal of bags from beneath frank, intelligent eyes, the fine slicing away of the hooded skin above them. To ensure that the banner of beauty could fly once again, she’d even let them raise her brow-line. She would return to the academic fold in late September, newly minted – she hoped – with the illusion of youthfulness making her glow. The same, only different.

            It was not the kind of topic that got much of an airing in the Common Room, where the Marys of her generation sometimes exchanged survival notes. These children of the mid-Fifties were not all called Mary, but she considered most of them to be Mary-like. Máire from Gweedore had recently adopted a Vietnamese baby girl. It was the talk of the department, and discussion behind her back ranged from admiration to one or two traditional comments on how motherhood would clip her wings. Muireann in Folklore was in the middle of a divorce, and Mairín was the mother of four teenagers. They discussed these subjects with one another, carefully and caringly, usually in the absence of their male colleagues.

            Dervla had not mentioned the facelift to anybody apart from her husband Dan. Why would she need to do such a thing, he wondered aloud when she told him of her intention, his eyes widening. 

            Because, she replied.

            ‘You think it’s silly and pathetic,’ she added.

            He touched her arm. 'I just don’t understand …’

For a moment she said nothing.

             ‘Maybe I don’t understand either. It’s just … I don’t want to look … old …’

            ‘Well,’ he shrugged, ‘if it won’t turn you into one of those rubber-faced freaks, why not?’

            It had been very straightforward. Local anaesthetic throughout, face numbed as the surgeon marked and outlined, chatting away to the anaesthetist. She had watched him raise his delicate lacerating instruments, and with every fine, painless tug, felt herself being re-created. The youth and radiance still within her, pushed more closely to the surface of not-yet-old skin.  She could feel it in her healing epidermis, dancing to get out.

            From what she absorbed in her twilit state, both doctors spent as much time as possible down in Schull. As the surgeon gently tugged, or in the case of her eyes, cut and cauterised, she sensed the ease of men at work and at play, and to her surprise, she despised them. Mostly though, she despised herself for needing them.

            Another week passed and still she drove to Neptune Bay. Dan was in Kerry, climbing Carrantoohill. They sent idiotic, comically-cryptic texts to one another, for their eyes only. Their two daughters were in Mexico, learning Spanish. She wondered if they’d notice the difference in her when they returned to UCC in the autumn. She stood in the warm July sun, face slathered in sun-block, watching the horizon through her sunglasses. If she sailed straight on she would arrive at Finisterre, the end of the earth for the ancients, but the start of Galicia, in north-western Spain.

            Three weeks after the operation, she was starting to resemble her old self. The slightly mashed and swollen bruising had subsided. What remained was an Asian yellowness and residual patches of blood beneath her eyes that had yet to be absorbed. With make-up, camouflage would be possible within the next few days. Satisfied, she turned the key in the ignition and pulled away from the beach.

            The cottage was overheated when she got back. She flung the front windows wide and sat down at the table, laptop open. The infants next door were screaming their heads off, but the half-written article awaited her attention. She stopped for a moment, listening again. It was the woman’s voice, calling out, it seemed. She leaned forward slightly and peered out the window. The man was leaving in a great hurry. He stepped into the four by four, shut the door smartly, then snorted off down the village street. She began to tap at the keyboard, and the next sentence came easily.

            An urgent rapping at the door disturbed her.

            ‘Fuck!’ she said between her teeth, not bothering to lean out the window to see who it was. She strode towards the hall door and pulled it open. The woman from next door practically fell into the hall, bubbles of blood beading a split lower lip. Her mouth opened soundlessly for a moment, revealing blood-vivid teeth. The nose was skewed sideways and also bled. The skin beneath one eye was livid though not broken.

            ‘Sorry to bother you …’

        The thick, fluid-choked voice gave out and again she struggled to speak.

        ‘It’s the children. Can’t leave ... ’ Then she screamed, and more metallic-smelling blood ruptured in clots and bubbles from her nose, spraying out onto Dervla who could not stop staring, even as she reached for the woman’s arm and drew her into the sitting-room. She got the woman to sit and tried to control her own horror. As she dialled the doctor with one hand, she held on to the woman’s arm with the other, as if she was a child who might escape her grip. The doctor’s number was engaged.

         ‘Tell me your name.’     

         The woman wiped her mouth.

         ‘M-m-ma- ,’ she mumbled.

         ‘What’s that?’ Dervla asked, leaning close.

         The woman drew in a breath and pushed the word out.

        ‘Em-maa! … Em-ma! … Emma! …’ she repeated, as if she had just learned who she really was. Dervla took a tissue from her jeans pocket. It was clean. She reached out as if to dab beneath the woman’s nostrils. But she pulled back and mumbled something Dervla couldn’t pick up.

            ‘Leave it – it needs to dry up itself.’

            So this wasn’t the first time.

            ‘I’m going to make tea before we go. Sweet tea before you go anywhere, Emma,’ she insisted, not sure if she was doing the right thing or not. Emma nodded compliantly, began wiping around her lips with her t-shirt. They were swollen and purple.

            ‘Who did this to you?’ Dervla asked softly. The answer was obvious of course, and rage rose from her gut, so violent she wanted to explode. Emma said nothing.         For a moment, the other woman struggled to straighten her shoulders, to hold herself erect, as if to say she still had some pride, some coating of protective, womanly deception at her disposal. But just as quickly, she slumped forward and gave up.

            ‘My husband,’ she whispered, and began to cry. It wasn’t loud crying. It was a miserable, despairing sort of snivel, what should really have been a full-on Medusa-like bellow. For a moment Dervla said nothing. What she wanted to do was put her arms around Emma and just hold her. Maybe rock her, as one would an injured child. But she didn’t.

            ‘Emma? Are the kids alone now?’

            Emma nodded.

            ‘I’d better go to them. Emma?’

            The other woman looked up, as if seeing her for the first time. Again she nodded. 

            ‘Yes. Get them please. Bring them to me.’

            The kettle was boiling. Dervla leaned down and put her arm around Emma’s shoulder as much as she dared. Some of the blood was smeared into her blondeness, around her hairline, running around the edges of her face and down towards her left ear-lobe. She hardly knew what to say, yet wanted to say something. Incredibly, Emma was already pulling herself together, she could feel it, an endurance of some kind. The trembling had stopped, the crying had stopped. Even the blood from her nose was now thickening on her face. Soon it would start to dry.

            ‘EmmaI’m so sorry that this is happening to you . . . ‘

            She chided herself for feeling inarticulate, for not knowing either what to do or what to say. Tea. What use was tea? As Dervla moved to go and collect the children, Emma caught her arm.

            ‘And you? How did that happen?’ She pointed to Dervla’s face, a puzzled, concerned expression in her eyes. Of course. She wasn’t wearing the sunglasses. It was clear what Emma was thinking.

            ‘Oh I’ll tell you about that in a minute!’ she said lightly, fleeing next door to gather up the babies who were roaring for their mother. She wondered what to tell Emma, how to answer her perfectly reasonable question. If she believed in karma or the cosmos sending little niggling messages, this would be one long memo. It was unfair. One face mashed by a Bad Bastard Husband, another’s voluntarily mashed, and Good Husband innocently scaling Carrantoohill, letting her get on with a life that seemed more vapid by the minute.

 

      

©2011 Mary O'Donnell

 

 

 

 

Author Links

 

Mary O'Donnell Home Page

Medea999: Mary O'Donnell's blog

Poems and article at Poetry International Web

 

 

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