If I buy the jumpers baggy, my mother mightn’t notice.
I rifle through the knitwear in Penney’s. Saturday after lunch and it’s manic — young ones jostling, women aiming buggies like weapons.
Mam let me come to the city, but I had a hard job convincing her.
“It’s the first week of a new school year,” she said. “Haven’t I already spent a fortune kitting you out?”
I don’t want to think of expense. Not now. In fact, if I could drown out everything, I’d be fine.
That Saturday night in June replays in my mind. I passed out cold after swigging vodka behind the parish hall, disco music blaring from inside. I won’t be touching the drink again for a good long time.
“Sorry, love.” A stout woman, tanned and tattooed, elbows me aside and makes a grab for the navy jumpers, size sixteen. I take two of the same and zigzag my way to the till.
The cashier bags my items, and snaps the twenty euro from my palm. “Tanks, love.” Is it my imagination, or does she glance twice at my belly?
Exhaustion washes over me. I need to sit down, preferably with an Americano. I head to the shopping centre, grab a coffee, and sink onto the communal seats in the middle of the aisle. A woman with a huge bump plonks herself next to me. My coffee goes down the wrong way, and she asks, as she shifts uncomfortably on the bench, if I am okay.
I nod and flee to the loo. In the safety of the cubicle, I read Mam’s text: What bus will you be home on?
Truth be told, I don’t know. I crouch there for a while. Someone impatiently raps on the door. Blow them.
I gather my bags, make my way out onto the street, and zombie-walk towards the station. But I baulk at the thought of going home. The river calls, and I cross at the pedestrian lights, pensioners and couples and children thronging around me. The waters of the Lee swoop and swirl, dark and inviting. I stop at the railing and stare into its depths, oblivious to honking horns and flashing lights.
“Are you all right, love?” An old lady’s hand touches my shoulder. She is wrapped in an expensive wool coat, camel-coloured and well-cut.
“Ah, yes, I got lost in thought.”
Her eyes are soft, kind. “On your own, are you?”
I glance at my watch. “Yes, I’m in a rush for the six o’clock bus, actually.” I pick up my bags. “I’m fine.”
She smiles. “Well, safe journey.”
I run down to the next set of lights and cross to the station. A minute to six. I’m the last person to board the bus. The driver scrutinises my ticket as if I were a fraudster of the highest order. I suppose I am.
“You’re under sixteen?”
“I am,” I whisper.
Thankfully the young lad next to me is listening to music on his phone. He taps his right leg to the rhythm. I set my alarm for an hour later. Little chance of sleep, with my mind churning like a washing machine.
Deep down, maybe I hadn’t come to Cork for the baggy jumpers? Maybe I’d come for the river? Chickened out at the last moment. Should I be grateful to that old lady, or should I resent her?
On your own, are you? Well, I wasn’t. Not strictly speaking. There was Mam. We used to have a bond. As the bus moves down Patrick Street, I spot a toddler licking an ice cream. Mam used to buy me a cone at the Centra every Sunday, summer and winter. We didn’t have much, but that was my treat. The relationship hit black ice once I turned twelve and started to answer back. But Mam would support me now. Once she digested the news. The hardest bit for her would be going to Mass, wondering if the other parishioners were judging her. Again. History repeating itself.
The alarm buzzes, and I pull myself out of a disturbed half-sleep.
Mam meets me at the bus, looking tired and harassed, and we sit into her car. Before I can intervene, she pulls the jumpers out of the bag. “Sixteen? You got the wrong size! God, you shouldn’t be allowed out.”
It’s true. I shouldn’t be let out. And haven’t I the proof of it?
“We’ll have to go up again to exchange them.” She shakes her head.
I take a deep breath and look directly at her. “I don’t think we will, Mam. I don’t think we will.”
Geraldine McCarthy lives in West Cork in the Republic of Ireland. In a former life she was involved in tutoring, lecturing, translation and research. She has been writing short stories and flash fiction for two years now. Her work has been published in The Fable Online, The Incubator Journal, Seven Deadly Sins: a YA Anthology (Gluttony and Wrath), Scarlet Leaf Review and Brilliant Flash Fiction.