Mother’s Friend

Naoise Dolan is an Irish writer born in Dublin. She studied at Trinity College, followed by a master’s degree in Victorian literature at Oxford University. Her writing has appeared in the Dublin Review and the Stinging Fly. Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times, is published in 2020 by W&N in the UK and Ecco in the US. ‘Mother’s Friend’ has been specially commissioned for issue 26 of Port.

Illustration by Amber Vittoria

I left Ireland when Seán’s hitting me in the face caused disputes over our lack of shared vision. He wanted me to cry, or ask him to stop. Instead I laughed and he pushed me down the stairs, a bold artistic choice and renegade word of mouth hit, and anyway I left without a bag. I got the ferry to England like a pregnant person, which ironically I had been until the fall. In London, I took some time out to stop bleeding and other life admin. Then I got a job.

The stairs part needed polishing: Seán threw me, Seán made me fall, I fell. By the time I saw an English doctor the week I arrived, I’d progressed to: There was a fall. I’d lived in England briefly before and was still registered with the NHS. I knew how to talk to them.

‘Was this in London?’ the doctor said, meaning: Could I get sued for not asking who pushed you.

‘Dublin,’ I said. We were both happy.

In Dublin I’d been Treasa, but in London I was Theresa. I was always trying to be easier for other people. It made me more difficult for myself, but that didn’t matter.

My London flatshare required no deposit, a clear sign that it would be a miserable place, but I had little money and no choice. I’d found the room online while staying in a hostel, and moved in that week. It was a box room, just wide enough to hold a bed, and the whole apartment was damp and dark. Over the next few days, I encountered my new flatmates in the common area. We all acted delighted to make each other’s acquaintance, when really we’d been hoping to cook alone. We were seven, in four bedrooms – two couples, me, and two other singles. ‘Singles like me’, I repeated to myself when I met them.

My first Saturday in the flat, a man (Greg) and a woman (Sophie) invited me to watch television. I had to accept the offer, or they’d think I was hostile. I couldn’t focus on their show, so I sat between them on the couch and mentally talked myself through what I would have to do to murder Seán, as in the process before/ during/after. There were timeless methods and modern ones. In this fantasy, Seán hadn’t done anything to me. I wanted nothing that might invite people to sympathise with me, the killer. I didn’t want them judging me, whatever they concluded.

‘How are you finding London?’ said Sophie in an ad break.

‘It’s’, I said – and then the break ended. I wasn’t sure if she still wanted me to finish my sentence now the show had resumed, so I said nothing.

That night I lay in bed and couldn’t sleep. On my phone I looked up Victorian female serial killers. The historical distance provided escapism, also logistical clarity. It was easier to kill back then. You could imagine yourself doing it, if so inclined.

I imagined being as bad as those women. I wanted to deserve so little that any mistreatment would make sense. The killers’ names – the Ogress of Reading, Jill the Ripper – placed them outside compassion. I didn’t like to have my circumstances and beliefs at odds. I couldn’t change anything that Seán had done to me, not now and not while it had been happening. But I could picture myself as someone who’d asked for it.

*

My London job was in data entry. The ideal candidate description had read: Experience entering data. I interviewed for it three weeks after arriving, when I’d exhausted my savings. The first question was: Describe yourself. I told them I was precise.

‘Precise about what?’ the interviewer said.

‘Everything,’ I said. For instance, ‘Describe yourself ’ was a prompt, not a question.

‘Tell me, Theresa,’ the interviewer said, ‘how do you do on teams?’

‘I love working with people.’ I contracted the relevant muscles to make a smile. ‘I love bouncing ideas off them.’

The interviewer looked wary that I might have an idea presently in hand, and fearful that I’d launch it at his head.

They gave me the job and I started three days later. The office was in a dark basement just south of the Thames. There were no assigned desks, but I chose a wobbly one in the corner on the first day, and came early every morning after to claim it. I didn’t know what might happen if I sat somewhere else, but nor did I want to find out. In the training they’d warned that ‘some’ workers came to find data entry tedious, but I liked the repetition. I got to know the carpet, a murky navy paisley thing, and the feel of it rubbing against my shoe. The computer smelled of plastic, and the hall of disinfectant. My keyboard had big clacky keys that were smooth and shiny in the middle.

I rarely understood the data. I didn’t ask my boss. I wouldn’t degrade myself like that. He was twice my age, late forties or so. On my third day on the job, he touched my knee. I let him – or I sat there and said nothing, so I supposed I was letting him. He did it again a few days later, and then again at similar intervals until I came to expect it. Like my grimly claimable desk, my boss’s hands were an ongoing reality that I accepted as routine, knowing it was better than many of the contingencies that might replace the known event.

I needed a job or I’d die. That meant it wasn’t worth stating this about any job in particular. I went to the basement every day and was nice to my boss, and so were my colleagues. We all acted like we weren’t working to stay alive. At 1 pm we ate lunch at our desks, and we all said things to the person next to us.

‘Lovely day,’ my colleagues said when there was a hint of sun.

‘Miserable day,’ they said when it drizzled.

Day, I wanted to say. Day and day and day. Days for days, if you’ll permit a wag her frippery. I knew more words than I could pull off saying aloud.

During these days, the office environment – distant male voices, dropped pens for some reason – made me smell Seán’s cologne or hear his footsteps. When that happened, I listed next steps. There was the desk, and then turning on the computer, and then my lunch break and then more data. These were tasks. My activities after work were tasks as well, because I put them on a list. Replying to a text was work, and watching TV with my flatmates was work, and work itself was really the easiest part of the day because at least I could call it work.

*

Seán and I first met as engineering students in Dublin. We started dating when I was twenty-one, and I left at twenty-four. He graduated with a masters and a job in industry, while I acquired a third class degree and just enough maths to compete with automation – until the robots caught up. When we started dating his friends told me he had his troubles, which in practice meant that I was expected to make him one of mine. He was impatient when I interfered with us having sex by e.g. not wanting to. I don’t know why I stayed with him. I supposed his contempt for me seemed to commend his judgement. The worse men thought of me back then, the more I respected their opinion. If he had told me I was useless and I should kill myself, I would have thought he was a hero. I know because he did say that, and I did think that.

Besides ‘useless’ he called me ‘pedantic’, including in contexts where ‘stickler’ would have been a better word. I couldn’t tell him so without proving that he’d been right to deem me a stickler, albeit through the semantically flawed avenue of calling me pedantic.

The week before he pushed me down the stairs back in Dublin, he called me both useless and pedantic in the same conversation. I thought about both words, and he asked what I was thinking.

I said: ‘Bees.’

He said: ‘You what?’

‘The bees are dying, and that’s one reason we’re fucked.’

‘What are you on about, we’re fucked?’

‘Landlords,’ I said. ‘The climate.’

‘The fuck’s that got to do with bees?’

During our last few weeks together in Dublin, there’d also been a secret: He hadn’t known I was pregnant. Now, when I stood too still in one place on the streets of London, I started thinking I should have told him about the foetus and he wouldn’t have pushed me downstairs. Then I thought: Maybe if I’d told him, he’d have pushed me harder.

When I looked at anything for too long, I thought of him snatching my phone off me, or him kneeing my legs apart, or actually just him. Once he was in mind, I knew if I looked around he’d be there. I kept walking and kept moving my gaze.

London helped me distract myself. The Tube was fast, or slow in a way where the delay seemed like the most pressing difficulty in my life. One Monday morning, a man on the train nudged me until I took out my headphones.

‘What?’ I said.

‘I said cheer up.’

I was puzzled.

He expanded: ‘It might not happen.’

‘Okay,’ I said. I put my headphones back in.

Sameness helped me cope. There was a stationary shop near my flatshare. I never bought anything, but I liked that it didn’t change from day to day. It stocked patterned and plain and textured paper, notebooks in the corner and a display of pens in the middle. The first time I went in, I said hello, but neither staff member acknowledged me. I preferred it like that. If people saw me, then they’d notice if I moved the wrong parts of my face, or held my body wrong, or used wrong intonation or said wrong words. I wanted to pass through London without thinking about how to position myself and how my voice should sound. The stationery shop accommodated my wish to be ignored, probably because I didn’t look as though I could afford anything there with my lank hair and my grubby coat.

Work usually finished too late to go to the stationary shop afterwards, but I went when I could. When the place was closed, I looked in the window. They left the lights on in the display. This seemed a further commitment to sameness.

*

I’d deleted my social media. I tried to make a new Facebook under ‘fdsahjkafds sadjlhasf ’, which the security bot did not believe was a real person’s name, so then I called her Grace Molloy. I used her to check if Seán was still in Dublin. Then he came up in Grace’s suggested friends, so I deactivated that account, too.

When the doorbell rang, I thought it was him. When the phone rang: him, too. I dealt with this by never answering either, explaining it to my flatmates as a quirk. ‘I don’t answer the door,’ I said. ‘I don’t answer my phone.’ I was practically Sally Bowles.

It took time slash money to feed and wash myself, and for what? I entered data in the basement to pay for a bed and supplies, which I used to take care of myself so that I could return to the office and do more work.

My boss was still touching my knee. There was no mounting drama to it. It was what he did.

‘I’d compliment your lipstick,’ he said one Friday, ‘but of course in this climate. . .’

The next Tuesday: ‘If times hadn’t changed so much, I’d say that skirt is rather short.’

A week later: ‘Of course you can’t say this nowadays, but those trousers – .’

There was a great deal that men couldn’t say anymore, and an abundance of phrases that allowed them to say it anyway.

A few weeks into the job, a coworker asked me about my day and I mentioned I had a contagious skin infection. I said it loudly so my boss would hear. He still touched my knee later that day while I was sitting at my desk, though. He leaned in and asked me how I’d gotten on with a new type of spreadsheet.

‘Fine,’ I said.

Until he’d left, I imagined how I might steer a plane to make cloud shapes in the sky. Would I visually map my route while I steered the plane, I wondered, or would I plan the coordinates in advance, and then mechanically follow them while doing the actual flying. Would it feel, basically, like a creative project. I knew if I looked it up later then I’d remember my boss touching me. This seemed a shame, because I was curious.

*

If someone was always in the apartment when my flatmates were, then the flatmates concluded that this person never left. This was unfair, because maybe that person only arrived home two minutes before the flatmates, and left two later than them the next morning, falsely suggesting their omnipresence in the flat. They could actually be spending a lot of time outside, and no one would give them the credit.

I went and sat in a pub nearby, the Friday night after I moved in. I felt the usual resignation when I did something that I wasn’t enjoying, but that I would still do henceforth whenever the first event triggered it. I didn’t always cling to routine in terms of each day being the exact same, but I had my domino effects, where if I did a particular thing then I also did whatever followed. I knew that the next time I needed to get out of the flat, I’d go back to this rancid pub.

My coaster had an etching of Winston Churchill on it. The beer ring around him looked like a target.

A woman nearby was showing a man something on her phone. She laughed and slapped his arm while he spoke. He looked puzzled by the mix of physical reproach and verbal encouragement, and settled on patting her thigh like a lump of clay he was testing to see whether it had dried.

‘Girls in London,’ he said. He and the woman both looked at least thirty. ‘Girls in London will say they don’t want anything serious, but they’ve plans for you.’

I couldn’t hear the woman’s response. This probably meant that the man was talking too loudly for her, and she was trying to let him know by lowering her own volume.

‘But I have plans for you,’ he said, still loudly. ‘So we’re even.’

She did not look interested to hear his plans, or at any rate seemed uncertain that her eardrums were equal to absorbing the attendant reverberations.

I decided to walk home. Outside it was dark and cold. I knew statistically that men in your home were more dangerous than on the street. In my head I argued back that this only made sense as a consideration if I were choosing between men in one location versus another. Really the statistics said it was best to avoid all men, including by taking a taxi instead of walking. But what about the man in the taxi, I said back, and what about the men on the Tube, if that’s your next question.

I looked up Victorian female killers on my phone while I walked. Many were baby farmers, women who adopted unwanted infants in exchange for money. Out of malice or staunch business sense, they gave the babies drugs and alcohol to suppress their appetites and their cries. Godfrey’s Cordial, or ‘Mother’s Friend’, was popular: an opium syrup. High on narcotics, the children didn’t feel hungry. They starved in a stupor. The officials recorded it as ‘failure to thrive’.

I imagined someone who’d drug infants, and I thought of what else that person could do. I thought about why someone might want to kill you, and why they mightn’t care what happened in your head until you died.

*

My second month in the flat, the shower broke. The flatmates and I had a roundtable evening discussion about what to tell the landlord. I’d moved in last, which they seemed to find relevant in terms of whose fault it was. Also, just to note, the man who’d had my room previously had entered more fully into the house spirit. He’d been up for Bake-Off and a glass or two. I wanted to say I couldn’t drink alcohol because the smell reminded me of my boyfriend raping me, but I felt this would do little to lighten the mood. It would set Greg off about how he’d said all along they should find a bloke for the room to keep the balance.

‘Ilya hates me,’ I said. Ilya was the landlord.

‘Ilya doesn’t hate you,’ Sophie said.

‘I sent him my rent on PayPal and I forgot they’d charge him a transaction fee, and now he thinks I scammed him,’ I said. ‘He yelled at me in Russian.’

‘You shouldn’t worry what people think of you,’ Greg said.

I felt faulty; company didn’t heal me. My own mind was a hellscape, and I knew I should have been grateful to step outside of it. But I still had to use my brain to interact. This meant I risked leaning on the wrong nerve cells in such a way that I’d remember Dublin. It was like having an indeterminate ache, and being afraid to move in case doing so specified and intensified the pain. Every time I contorted myself to make the right expressions, or fished for the right phraseology, I knew I might hit on memories.

*

The skin infection I’d mentioned near my boss was really there. Red stings spread in crevices – the crook of my arm and the inside of my thighs. When I scratched the red areas, scales came off. On my scalp, the flakes buried themselves in the knots and matted clumps of my hair. I never used a hairbrush. You just had to brush again the next day.

The NHS doctor told me to buy shampoo and lotion with an active ingredient. They were ten pounds each. I said I couldn’t afford that, and he gave me a form for the state to cover it.

‘And the other thing?’ the doctor said.

‘I’ve stopped bleeding.’

He congratulated me.

‘It’s rare for a fall itself to cause a miscarriage,’ he said. ‘More often it’s the trauma of falling. If you need counselling – ,’ and then another form.

I brought this second form home. In my room, I drew a heart on it and wrote out a shopping list, which was curious given that I never did a real grocery shop. Most mornings I just went to Tesco Express on the way to work, and bought a brown seeded loaf of bread, which I ate slice by slice throughout the day. Micronutritionally I was fucked, but that didn’t bite you till a few years down the line. I hoped to be far from London by then.

My commitment to survival was interesting. Every morning I pulled my oily hair into a ponytail, I went to work, I took in sufficient calories, and I kept doing it.

Our landlord, Ilya, sent someone to sort the shower. It cost us fifty quid each. I sensed that my flatmates had tried to think of a way to make me pay the whole bill that didn’t amount to ‘You moved in last so it’s your fault’, couldn’t, but still felt their own contributions were magnanimous.

‘Careful no-one breaks the shower again,’ Greg said in the common area. Three of us were there, waiting for him to be done with the sink. He laughed to establish he was making a joke, looked at me to show I was the target, and kept on laughing to say that yes it was funny but he also feared I would snap the nozzle in two and ram it down someone’s throat.

‘We should be careful not to clog the drain too,’ I said. It must be great fun to be a man and never notice your own pubic hair.

I still had to watch television with the flatmates at least two evenings a week. An hour at a time seemed the minimum, although I couldn’t stick to this timeframe rigidly or they’d know I was there out of obligation, which would do little, if anything, for vibes. I put in my sixty minutes, give or take, then went to my room and took my phone off airplane mode. I couldn’t read Seán’s texts in the sitting room. I didn’t trust myself not to react.

The messages lacked creativity, of course. Seán was no bard. I was a stupid bitch, which was the thing in the world I least needed anyone else to explain to me, and I was a cunt, which, similarly, was not news. He was sorry for pushing me, but, honestly, I’d drive anyone to it. You shouldn’t laugh at people when they’re trying to talk to you. Et cetera.

How had he gotten my English number?

I wondered if there was a way to turn off my ‘seen’ receipts, but I worried about what he might think if he’d been getting the blue ticks and then they stopped. I began to think of the checkmarks as my doorman. They said: Treasa is not available, but I’ll be sure to pass it on.

If someone died while looking at a message thread between you and them, then the ‘seen’ checkmarks would keep showing until their screen locked. This could last quite some time if they had auto-locking turned off and a healthy battery. You could spend a day texting someone, thinking you were communicating, when your words were really only reaching the metal block in a cadaver’s hand. Unless you discovered their exact moment of death, you’d never know which message was the last they’d seen.

*

I sent off the form for NHS counselling. Several weeks later, I had an initial consultation with a young, pink-lipsticked woman named Brenda. In the reception room, she shook my hand and led me down the corridor.

‘There’s a lot,’ I warned her.

‘Is there,’ Brenda said, to signal I should wait till we were inside. She led me to a white windowless room, pointed to the water and tissues on the table, and gave me a form. It was all forms with these people. While I filled out the boxes, she asked what had brought me here.

‘A lot,’ I said.

I told her everything. She said the state would give me six free sessions to sort it. From the holes in my shoes and the state of my teeth, she probably knew I couldn’t afford private counselling. We agreed CBT would be best, navigate the immediate challenges she said, practical she said, nothing Freudian. I signed the form and spent weeks waiting for an appointment. The letter never came.

*

It was all data. My TV time with flatmates left no receipts, but it coagulated into proof that I was a functioning household member. You could replace my eyes with glass ones and they wouldn’t notice. But I was there. My memories were there, too. I could have classed it as trauma, but really I’d recorded things. My neurons were doing their job.

Even when Seán threw me downstairs, my brain had been fine. It was my stomach and limbs that hurt. I stayed on the floor, and a door slammed upstairs. I knew he’d stay in the bedroom a while. I could escape while he grappled with whatever complex male emotion had made him shove me. I needed to move, but if I tried to then I might pull or break something, or more likely I’d discover that something was already pulled or broken. If I stayed lying down then I wouldn’t have to find out. But he’d come down. I could get away if I stood up and if my body worked and if I closed the door softly, and if he didn’t see me from the window, and if the bus came soon. Waiting at the stop, I’d be in more danger than if I’d stayed on the floor: I’d be undeniably trying to leave him. I could get a taxi, but what if I didn’t have enough for flights, because there was a few hundred in my account, and flights would hopefully be less than that, but I’d need somewhere to stay. What about the deposit and the first month’s rent, and were there cards in my pocket? Or ID, even. The ferry was cheaper, so I’d do that. I could blag about the passport. Seán wouldn’t be expecting it, so really it was safer. A taxi was still a bad idea, because if I wound up twenty quid short on another night’s stay in a hostel, I’d hate myself for getting that taxi when I could have gotten the bus.

Something creaked upstairs.

Seán wouldn’t follow me to the bus stop. I needed him not to, so he wouldn’t – though it occurred to me that I’d also needed him not to push me downstairs and that had still happened.

I got up. This was foolish because what if something was broken; but it was fine, I could walk, I had no bag but there were coins in my pocket and cards on my phone. I closed the door, ran down the road, and did not stop running until I saw someone hail a bus. I knew if I looked behind me then I’d see him there. On the bus, I forgot how much it cost and I said: ‘Town, please.’

In the centre of Dublin I worked out how to get to London, and in London I kept thinking as far and only as far as the next location. It was all data, and all in my command.

When I had nothing to do at work, I sat at my computer and applied lipstick. The wax was thick like a hog’s kiss. I rubbed my lips together and thought: My mouth could be fused shut, and I won’t know until I try to open it. It was wisest to say nothing. I could give up even trying to speak, and then I’d never find out if I could. You only realised you were trapped when you struggled. At work and in the flat, they knew I was Theresa. They knew I’d give them no trouble.

You might have called me lonely in London. There were people around me, but I couldn’t spend time with them in the way that they wanted me to. Possibly I was hungry and possibly I needed things. But with Mother’s Friend, you never heard a cry.

This article is taken from issue 26. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Ways of Writing: Naoise Dolan

Discussing gender, ableism and influences with the new Irish novelist

Kerry Crowe: Do you think there are any particular responsibilities of the young writer in 2020?

Naoise Dolan: As a group, I don’t think writers have responsibilities above and beyond the universal ones – which are, I think, to be empathetic and communitarian in one’s politics and personal life. But there are categories some writers fall into (‘people with a platform’, for instance) that do, I think, hold particular responsibility. For instance, before we were all on lockdown anyway, I’d stopped flying – not as someone who writes fiction, but as someone who talks to the media. I didn’t want to be complicit in the level of climate change denial that allows the publishing industry to fly authors internationally to do things that could be accomplished remotely (as we’re now seeing).

Which writers inspire you?

The writer who’s inspired me the most in a while is Sayaka Murata, the Japanese novelist. I’d finished writing my debut Exciting Times when I read her Convenience Store Woman, but Murata is brilliant at a number of themes and approaches that interest me: economical scene-setting, defamiliarising the routines of consumerism and urban life, and explaining her characters’ motivations without necessarily trying to engender sympathy for them.

How do you feel about comparisons to Sally Rooney?

I don’t pay that kind of thing very much attention; it doesn’t help me write.

You both explore the material instability of life as a millennial: Do you think this will be one of the defining characteristics of this decade’s literature?

I don’t personally find ‘millennial’ useful as a category of analysis. For one thing, the oldest millennials are in their late 30s now, so I don’t know if I have much in common with them! For another, the crises facing renters face all renters, and the crises facing precariously employed people face all precariously employed people. I’m sceptical of modes of generational analysis that elide class as the more pertinent factor uniting those constraints. I do like to see money discussed in fiction, though, and I’m always interested in seeing how other writers tackle it.

You recently made your autism diagnosis public: How do you feel about the gender imbalance in the understanding and diagnosis of autism? Has the bias affected you personally?

The gender imbalance is more frequently discussed now, but there’s often a misguided essentialism to it. You’ll see people describing autistic women as ‘more sociable’ or ‘more able to mask our traits’, as if it were inherent. My instinct is that patriarchy makes disabled women more vulnerable than disabled men. Ableism hits us harder as a group, so we direct more energy towards accommodating its demands. For me, ‘masking’ my autism has always come at huge personal and artistic cost. I could have published a novel much sooner if I hadn’t spent decades silently coping with an unsupported disability. Just as women in general aren’t innately more giving of labour, so autistic women aren’t innately more giving of the labour that goes into masking our autism.

Why do you think Ireland produces such a relatively large number of great writers?

I think all countries produce an equal proportion of great writers, but some have more favourable conditions for producing work and getting it published. The more circumscribed a country’s literary opportunities are, the smaller the pool of talent will be. Certainly Ireland still has a long way to go on that front, but we enjoy relatively strong financial support for the arts. That said, I think a socialist Ireland, where survival was universally guaranteed, would produce better writing than the present one, where the government picks its winners with grants.

Photography Tami Aftab

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan is out now in hardback and exclusive signed editions are available from waterstones.com

This article is taken from issue 26. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here