Photo © Patrick Warner

Balan

by Valerie Sirr

On the cobbled driveway of their cul-de-sac Gerry and his mother peered into the bonnet of her silver Audi. Behind them detached houses with bay-windowed facades dulled as faces that had seen it all before lined up against a bank of rain clouds.

          Gerry gripped a bath towel around his waist. The autumn chill spread goose-pimples across his naked torso. His mother pressed in behind him and when he straightened they almost knocked heads.

          He palmed the air with his free hand. ‘What do you expect me to see?’

          Her waxy forehead crimped at the hairline as she elevated one plucked eyebrow. ‘Maybe you'd know what to look for if you didn't spend your days–’

          ‘Immersed-in-electronic-violence-and-pornography.’ He raised his elbows, stretched out his arms and yawned hugely.

          She drew in a wheezy breath. ‘I'll try your father.’

          ‘Why wait until you turn blue? Use your inhaler, Mother.’

          She held her phone at arm’s length tapping the keypad with her acrylic nails.

*

On his way upstairs he heard her call after him: ‘Ask Justina if she’s done the ironing. And tell her to make a start on the hoovering!’

          Then he heard his father on loudspeaker, another habit of hers. Deaf as well as blind, he thought.

          ‘Just leave it,’ his father said. ‘It’s dead.’

          In the bathroom he stretched his neck to look through the open window at Justina huddled by the cast-iron table on his parents’ patio. Her short blonde hair was tucked behind her ears; her skin shadowed by his mother's Virginia creeper cleaving to the wall under its showy burgundy surface. Her sequinned T-shirt clung to her small hard tits. He got hard. The vertical bar of her crucifix glinted as she leaned towards her computer screen, her sibilant voice plaintive against her boyfriend’s Skyped refusals.

          His mother knocked on the bathroom door, bracelets rattling.             

          ‘Don’t make me go without you!’

          He swaddled his erection with a bath-towel. She clattered heavily downstairs.

          Under the luxurious deluge from the rainforest showerhead his mind eased and he retreated into fantasy – his means of escape from the pervasive stupidity of others. Thoughts of Justina flooded in: how she had wept about her boyfriend’s reluctance to leave his Polish landscaping business to join her and his son in Dublin. How she had let him hug her in the brotherly way he had with girls – though he never had a sibling, being a late and only child. How she had returned his kiss, lustily, he had thought, if only once.

          He tilted his face, thrust out his chest and stretched against the water thinking how well he had done despite his small-minded and upwardly mobile parents. He was liked by girls and boys, admired as somebody defiant and brave who had the potential to go far. He was psychologically detached from his mother even as a child when her passion for him had made him cringe.

          He combed his chest hair with the shower jets. Justina’s Omega Point ringtone came in through the open window as if her favourite band were communicating their pseudo-theological message about life as evolution towards ‘higher consciousness’. He almost laughed. He saw Justina as objectively as he saw others: her sentimental love for her father, her dreams about saving enough from cleaning houses to study counselling, her daft obsession with contrition and grace.

          He let the psychedelic rantings wash over him with the water and pictured her nipples stiff and pink, maybe even a dribble of milk. She had only recently stopped breastfeeding her child even though he was nearly two. He almost envied the kid.

          He felt a jump in his balls.

*

Downstairs he was disappointed to see Justina closing the front door behind her. He checked his phone. A girlfriend's text: ring me @ lunch & u cn moan. His mother beckoned while applying lipstick at the large gilt mirror. She ran her lip-brush side to side on the sloped tip of her lipstick.

          ‘I'll be lost without you when you go to college next week,’ she said, before applying the brush to her lips.

          He thumbed his phone pad: on duty.  

          ‘I'm looking forward to this morning's jaunt,’ she continued. She turned to face him. ‘Haven't been on a bus in years!’ She waved her hands as she spoke.

          Her lipstick flew out of her right hand. It glanced against the porcelain ornament that sat on the centre of the mahogany table by the mirror – an antique Pierrot doll her father had given her when she was a girl. She rushed to pick up the ornament, examining it minutely for cracks. He sighed as he watched her lipstick roll across the parquet tiles.

          He finished his text message: not fun. She wiped a fuchsia streak from the doll’s cheek and replaced it carefully then got down on her hands and knees to retrieve her lipstick.

          He pressed ‘send’.

          It struck him, as it often did, how his friends could always take their parents’ wealth for granted. Recently his mother had roped him in to help with her landlady duties. Since his father was forced to focus on his diminishing customer-base in an advertising company she had to deal with his sideline. Rent had to be collected and handymen found to attend to the endless maintenance of the family’s properties. She was reluctant to collect rent alone, because of the foreigners renting in Dublin now, people who might be hostile towards her, violent even. She was no racist she told Gerry often, ‘And don't forget we're doing these people a service. Many landlords refuse to rent to foreigners.’

          She shut her bag – made from bulky carpet material in autumn colours of brown, red and purple with a brass-coloured trim. ‘Bought this in Dunnes Stores. It's the new thing to do – recession chic!’ She did a mock model's pose for him, like a flirtatious girl.

          ‘Very Mary Poppins,’ he said, and watched her lower face drop as if she had deflated a small balloon in each cheek. He thought how it would be easier for him if she were hard, vicious even, instead of only pathetic.

          ‘It's fine,’ he said, sighing.

*

They sat under the bus shelter in Castleknock village, her talking rapidly and loudly as usual. She observed that from her experience as a landlady, Czechs are the best rent-payers and Poles are the worst, except for educated Poles, that is.

          ‘Must you always make generalisations?’ he said.

          Traffic noise rose up as the lights nearby changed.

          ‘We all categorise, Gerry.’ Her voice fought against the din. ‘Whenever we think about kinds of things – pizza toppings, nations, feelings – we are categorising.’

          The determined autumn sun blinded him. His head throbbed. He longed for his hubbly-bubbly pipe and a nice bit of green. He told her she was living in a world of her own, that not all people use the same Irish upper-middle-class conceptual system; that people experienced the world in ways she could never imagine.

          ‘Take the Aboriginal language,’ he said, ‘it has a category – “balan” –  that includes women, stars, dangerous fishes and stinging trees.’

          His mother snapped her bag’s clasp shut. She told him to stop dreaming about women and Australia.

          ‘I’m tired of hearing about Australia. You still owe me for Australia, Gerry.’

          Her lack of sophistication caused an inward flinch in him.

          He ogled a girl who flopped into the seat beside them, flimsy skirt veiling her thighs.

          ‘Where would you like to have lunch today, sweetheart?’ his mother said.

          ‘You know I'm not a massive foodie.’

          ‘My choice then!’

          He watched her jowls lift with the force of her smile.

          On the bus they took a window seat. Within minutes his mother was entertaining an older woman nearby as if they were visiting with her.

          ‘My son will be studying philosophy and economics at Trinity soon. For now he helps me with work. Keeps him in touch with the real world.’

          ‘I have no sympathy for the young,’ the woman replied. ‘They know nothing about misery.’

          He endured their suffering competition for a few minutes then shut his eyes and leaned his head against the window where it knocked against the metal frame until he cushioned it with his fine-knit cashmere scarf – a birthday gift from better times.

          His mother nudged him. The bus doors opened with a pneumatic hiss near the Castleknock gates to the Phoenix Park. Justina boarded wearing a green raincoat, her blonde hair flattened by a sudden shower, purplish smudges underneath her eyes. She held her ruddy-faced toddler by his chocolatey hand and folded the buggy with her other hand and knee. Her bag was slipping from her shoulder. It was made from bulky carpet-material in autumn colours of brown, red and purple, with a brass trim. There was something familiar about it. His mother nudged him again. Her face was suddenly pale and she looked at Justina with an almost mortified look. He ignored her and as the bus drove on slowly he found himself retreating into the consolation of reverie.

          The bus jolted over a speed ramp. He clenched his teeth and shifted his weight then shrank from a wad of chewing-gum stuck to his seat. An acrid smell hit the back of his throat. An unshaven man sat nearby, his face white and hard, the wooden face of wretchedness. Two track-suited young mothers parked their unwieldy buggies behind Justina; several old folks boarded for free. Justina smacked her boy for pawing at a woman’s trousers, surprising Gerry who thought of her as angelic. Fallen angel, he thought, prompting another hard-on. With the child on her hip she moved down the aisle then nodded at Gerry and his mother.

          ‘Don’t you think you should be gracious?’ his mother whispered loudly. ‘Get up!’

          He pretended not to hear her. He longed for the privacy of his mother’s heated Audi which he had recently learned to drive. It would be sold soon, when his father's company ‘right-sized’ itself again and his father retired at age forty-nine. Gerry had once failed the company’s job interview for ‘vacation’ work. He despised that Americanism. He despised euphemisms too and their attempt to sugar-coat reality. ‘Mature woman’ was one of his mother’s favourites.

           An old woman pushed past grabbing the greasy bus poles with her raw cracked fingers triggering an image from last night’s TV documentary: a gristly finger bitten off at the joint by a woman’s partner while she simultaneously bit off his. They told how they had numbed their fingers in ice, rinsed their mouths in bourbon then bitten down hard as they looked deep into each other’s eyes. ‘I wanted more than love words’ –  the woman’s explanation. ‘I wanted to feel our commitment in the most intense possible way’–  the man’s words. Gerry had feigned nonchalance, anticipating his parents’ shock until his mother’s words, ‘Such devotion!’ and her glowing eyes had startled him. Annoyingly, his father had flicked to an old black-and-white movie then, but when the slinky Jane Greer looked boldly at Robert Mitchum, Gerry had perked up. ‘What’s this about?’

          His parents had answered together.

          ‘Sex,’ his father said.

          ‘Money,’ his mother said.

*

Sheets of rain greyed the high granite walls of the Phoenix Park. Justina’s bag hovered near his mother's face. The realisation that their two Mary Poppins bags were identical dawned on him as suddenly hilarious. He let out a whinnying giggle. His mother ignored him, got up from her seat and loudly insisted that ‘Justina’ – he heard her mispronounce ‘J’ –  sit down. Her bag dropped from her shoulder on to her vacated seat, just when Justina struggling with the chocolate-smeared child placed her own bag on the seat. His mother retrieved hers. He silently parodied her misguided thoughts: Naturally I give up my seat to another woman burdened with a child. She's Polish, you know? I don't mind!

          Justina sat beside him after much polite protest. He considered talking to her but his contempt of chatty conversations on public transport got the better of him. The child on her knee kicked against his thigh. He looked out at the Phoenix Park imagining himself and Justina soaked through, crawling underneath the curtain of a willow tree, him peeling off her rain-soaked skirt, licking her belly dry, licking her pussy wet. From her Mary Poppins bag would appear satin sheets, baby oil; some sex toys. Then he saw his mother's face, her younger self, smiling, and from the imaginary bag came a cake of Sunlight soap and a bottle labelled ‘One Teaspoon to be Taken at Bedtime’. He shuddered.

          A black Mercedes like his father’s drew up alongside the bus. He wished his father had not left early that morning. They could have cadged a lift. The bus passed The Halfway House onto the Navan Road. Two elderly women in the seats in front of theirs twisted around to give Justina withering looks after her boy grabbed the candy-floss hair of one of them. Gerry saw that they were wealthy Castleknock, both seventyish, one with a round fur hat.

          Tight-lipped, they bent towards their shared copy of the Irish Daily Mail.

          Justina reddened and held her boy's hands firmly in hers and when the boy struggled Gerry saw her tighten her grip on him. The fur-hatted woman was now commenting on the Irish economic recession, one benefit being that two thirds of Eastern Europeans were now returning home.

          ‘Do you like the Russian look?’ Gerry wanted to say. ‘Perhaps you like Russians?’ He wanted to tell her that Russians were Eastern Europeans too. He wanted to tell her that his mother possessed a similar hat, but that it was definitely not polyester. His mother seemed to be pretending not to hear the women. He checked his phone.

          ‘What time is it, Gerry?’ His mother spoke over Justina's head.

          Justina stood for her stop. The child was bawling now and she aimed a soother at his wet mouth.

          Haunting psychedelic music rang out from inside his mother’s bag. Immediately Gerry realised her bag had been mixed up with Justina’s when she took his mother’s seat. His mother sat down beside him, absently dug Justina’s phone from the bag and held it at arm’s length. The Omega Point ringtone had stopped. He saw ‘voicemail’ displayed.

          ‘I can never find “loudspeaker”,’ his mother said.

          ‘But, that is mine!’ Justina said. ‘We have the wrong bags, you see?’

          She pushed her bag onto his mother’s lap and held out her hand for her own bag. His mother was not paying attention. All her concentration was focused on retrieving the voicemail. ‘It's probably your father,’ she said to Gerry. She located the loudspeaker key.

          Her husband’s voice rang out into the bus – jaunty, cajoling; pleading.

          ‘Justina! It’s me, Andy! Just to say I really am so sorry about that little incident this morning, but it's your fault for being so dangerous, young lady!’

          There was a ‘mwah’ sound.

          ‘Andy?’ thought Gerry. His father disliked diminutives. ‘Incident?’

          He remembered his mother’s recriminations against his father the other evening, saying he was cruel to her, that Gerry was just like him, displaying little interest in anybody or anything lately, except rugby and Mount Sackville girls.

          ‘Noses up, knickers down –  just his type,’ his father had said laughing at her and Gerry had laughed harder.

*

Justina spat what sounded like a swear word.

          ‘He is crazy!’ she said.

          His mother’s face whitened. Her lips had a lavender tinge like that evening when Gerry discovered her checking his father’s voicemail as she stood by the chiffonier in the hall, her bare feet on the cold tiles; her back against the wall.

          ‘Mum! Sit up! You shouldn’t slump. Mum! You have to breathe!’

          He pulled her shoulders back and held her upright. He looked to the two elderly women for assistance, but they sat stiffly, eyes fixed ahead.

          The bus-driver swore as he swerved to avoid a taxi.

          Justina fell against Gerry. Her hair fell across his face. It was damp and smelled of rain.

          She righted herself.

          The bus lurched again.

          Her thighs pressed against his elbow. Her pubic mound pushed against his upper arm. He recoiled. He felt how his father might feel with her like that; how he might have felt that insistent soft push when she pressed against him, when after her shower she might go to where he sat in her tiny flat. He saw them – naked, pushing; gasping.

          Justina blushed, and said, ‘Excuse me!’ and the sound of her silvery voice after her touch made Gerry dizzy with rage and confusion.

          His mother’s mouth was turning blue. There were inky Pierrot blobs of mascara on her cheeks like that antique doll of her father’s that she treasured and suddenly he felt that he himself was an expensive clown.

          Justina upturned his mother’s bag scattering its contents on the floor. She found a blue inhaler and pushed it into Gerry’s hand. While his mother sucked weakly on it he squeezed her arm like that evening when later on he had found her sitting on the bathroom floor wrapped in a wet towel she had soaked in hot water.

          ‘It feels like being held,’ she had told him.

*

Justina’s boy kicked out from where he was hanging on her hip and slightly dislodged the elderly woman’s fur hat. The woman cried out ‘Oh for goodness sake!’ then, nudging her companion, ‘The country is overcrowded with these people!’  

          She turned to Gerry's mother, fellow feeling flowing from her prominent pink-rimmed eyes. Dots of spittle on her lower lip reminded Gerry of a pit-bull terrier straining at a leash, but her fellow feeling did not appear to take in his mother’s gasping. She turned her slavering face to Gerry.

          ‘Are you with that person?’ She pointed at Justina. ‘Because if you are, I’d be grateful if you’d control the child.’

          She removed her hat and wiped it with a hanky.

          The bus came to a halt. Gerry shook. He saw Justina’s soft white hand gripping the back of the seat in front of his. The hand led his eyes up to the slim waist belted in that vivid green raincoat and up again to the hollow at the base of her throat, and then to the delicate pale face. Her smudged grey eyes looked straight into his with appeal. His face burned. He opened his mouth to speak, but he was unable. Justina’s eyes seemed to look through him then she swung away from him and vanished with her boy into the surge of passengers getting off in town.

          His veins felt empty of blood. He saw his heart grey and shrinking like the dirty piece of chewing-gum now sticking to his coat.

          His mother slumped against him.

          ‘Help! Somebody help!’ he shouted.

          Somebody had already called an ambulance. Two men in high visibility jackets approached carrying medical bags.

          He half stood to let them attend to his mother who was crumpled lumpily now as if she were a heavy coat thrown on the seat. Her face was without animation. Sweat trickled from her hairline. Her head hung sideways against the grimy window pane, strands of her hair plastered damply against it. He sat again and shook her hard. The ambulance men spoke to him, but he did not respond.

          ‘Mum!’ he cried, taking her shoulders in his hands. ‘Mummy!’

          They pulled him away.

          On the dirty floor lay his mother’s lipstick, a damp tissue, her keys and her cheap carpet bag now upside down. One of the passengers lifted the bag from the floor and dusted it with his hand. He handed it to Gerry. A woman bent to retrieve the keys for him.

           Gerry got down on his hands and knees. He reached out to pick up the small barrel of lipstick from where it lay on the gritty floor then wiped its case on his sleeve. He gathered up his mother’s things until he could find no more. When he stood the blue light of the ambulance flashed at him and at the other passengers staring out the window with him. His mother’s seat was empty. On the side of the ambulance a double row of green and yellow battenburg markings stood out garishly and its pale-yellow back doors seemed to beckon to everybody on the bus. One of the elderly women spread her fingers out in a fan against her breastbone and trembled. Gerry stood unsteadily holding the empty carpet-bag under his arm, staring at the objects in his hands. A tube of make-up had spilled on his fingers; a broken compact mirror was losing its cover. He eased the bag from under his arm. The mirror fell to the floor. The make-up followed spattering his shoes.

          ‘I can’t,’ he said to nobody in particular.

          An ambulance man returned. He picked up his emergency bag. The silent passengers watched the man as he retrieved his stethoscope, air mask, needle and phials. The man opened the bag to reveal clear pockets holding tape, wipes, dressings and syringes. He placed the larger items on top and drew up all the zips.

*

Gerry realised the man was looking at him. The passengers were watching him too. With shaking hands he retrieved the compact from the floor. He took hold of the carpet-bag. He picked up the make-up and fastened its lid. One by one replaced the items into the bag and zipped the compartments shut.

Valerie Sirr has published short fiction and flash fiction in Ireland, UK, US, Australia & Asia. Publications include The Irish Times, The Sunday Tribune, The New Writer, The Stinging Fly, The Wisconsin Review. Some poems are forthcoming in anthologies from Revival Press, Ireland. Awards include 2007 Hennessy New Irish Writer Award, two Arts Council of Ireland bursaries and other national and international literature prizes most recently a flash fiction award (2011) from The New Writer Magazine (UK), judged by British poet and writer Catherine Smith. Valerie's flash fiction appears on the National Flash Fiction 2012 (UK) website. She holds an M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. She teaches creative writing and blogs on writing: www.valeriesirr.wordpress.com. Her short story collection is currently under consideration. 'Balan' was suggested by Flannery O'Connor's 'Everything That Rises Must Converge'.

Patrick Warner is a photographer from Montana, USA. More of his work can be viewed in his Flickr gallery.