Fiona’s eczema was acting up as she browsed the Australian government’s visa page. The usual places, the backs of her hands, the pits of her elbows, and the backs of her knees were pink and screaming for attention like a newborn baby. Sitting cross-legged on her bed, she scratched the pit of her right elbow while her free hand worked the touchpad.
She was a Montessori school teacher, and that was one of the jobs on Australia’s wanted list. She had to leave Ireland, but her parents didn’t understand why. They could never know why. She couldn’t live in their house with it lurking beneath her skin. Not with her mam hovering around with her questions and her compassion.
Her best friend, Alicia, had a battle-axe for a mother. Alicia called her Big Mother; your business was her business and there were no negotiations. But if Alicia’s mother was a battle-axe, then Fiona’s was a scalpel. A wealth of mother’s intuition guided the blade to slice exactly where necessary to reveal the festering problem beneath. It had been a blessing in the past to have a mother who knew when she was needed, even when Fiona couldn’t bring herself to ask for help. But the last month had felt like a weird slasher movie, ducking and diving away from her mother’s inquisitive blade.
A sudden sharp, burning pain brought her mind back to the present. She’d scratched through the itch. She looked at the nails of her left hand and saw blood.
Blood. She hadn’t been prepared for all the blood. She knew it would come, she’d read about it online: “It’s kind of like having a really heavy, crampy period.” But it hadn’t been.
A couple of pills bought off the internet. Alicia’s room in the apartment she shared with two others. Nothing but Alicia’s hand to hold for support. At least the bedroom was en-suite—minuscule blessings.
“Like a heavy crampy period?! Are you fucking kidding me?!” she had cried, balled up in pain on Alicia’s bed. “Whoever wrote that never had a fucking period!” Nor had they had an abortion.
The blood and the—she had no words for them—the clumps. And the pain. It felt like something was eating her from the inside out. A jaw full of jagged teeth chewing away at her uterus and spitting out the remains.
Fiona got off her bed and went to the bathroom. She scrubbed the blood out of her nails with a nail brush and washed her hands with Silcock’s Base cream. Soap was too harsh on the skin. The skin where she’d scratched stood proud of her arm; red, raw, and weeping blood and interstitial fluid. She was almost jealous of it, the blood and fluid that had escaped her skin.
She put hydrocortisone steroid cream on the backs of her hands and the pits of her elbows. She pulled down her pyjama bottoms and rubbed more cream on the backs of her knees. She had to roll up the metal tube to get the last of it out.
She went back to her room and moved her laptop from her bed to the desk beside it. She got under the covers and switched off the light. Her sleep was kind. Her sleep was black. Her sleep forgot.
The hydrocortisone had done nothing overnight. Her skin was drier and more irritated than it had been when she went to sleep. The thoughts crept in while she was in the shower. The child that never was. The baby that never would be. The grandmother that almost was and what she’d do if she found out. What could have been, what never could be.
She had been scrubbing the side of her torso for two minutes before she realized. She winced and dropped the mesh shower puff. She ran her hand along the skin at her side; it was like reading braille. When it spread like this, it was telling her something. The thick, inflamed nodes of skin beneath her fingers said only one thing: Leave.
Her mam gave her a lift to work as usual.
“I was talking to Cynthia last night,” Fiona said as they drove. “She said I could stay with her in Perth until I find me own place.”
Her mam didn’t say anything right away. A “that’s nice” was beyond her.
“Why are you off half-way round the globe in anyways? It’s not like five years ago. Cynthia couldn’t find a job here, she had to go. You’ve got a job. What are you running from?”
“Jesus, ma, don’t be so dramatic. I’m not running from anything. Is it so mad to want to get paid more to do the same job? Is it crazy to want to live somewhere it doesn’t piss rain everyday and is sunny more than five days a year? Is that mad?”
“Not mad, just…sudden.”
Fiona could feel the scalpel above her head.
“Would you give over. I’m only bleedin’ twenty, and I’m only going for a year, two max. Is it so wrong I want to grow up and move out? Only if I moved out in Dublin, I could only afford to live in a feckin’ box. Two years, ma, it’s not a lifetime. Sure, didn’t da feck off to Saudi for two years?”
“Your da didn’t feck off anywhere, you little ingrate. He went where he could find work for you and for me. Had an awful time of it too. He’d no life over there. But he did that for you, and now you’re running off across the world from him. You’ll leave his heart sick, you know that?”
Fiona didn’t have any words in reply. She knew that. She’d known it from the moment she’d decided to leave. But she knew her mother too well to let her prime her. This was one of the ways her mam worked when Fiona was obstinate. The fire and the finery. She softened you with the fire, with guilt and shame, but lurking in the fire was the scalpel, waiting to pierce the cooked flesh.
“I’m going, ma, okay? With Whatsapp and Skype it’ll be like I never left.”
Fiona was thrown forward as her mam suddenly put her foot on the brake and pulled in, mounting the curb to give room for traffic. When the car came to a stop, her mam turned to her, her right hand on the wheel, her left wrapped round the headrest.
“Cut the bullshit,” she said. “I can smell it a mile away. You think I can’t tell when you’re lying to me? You think me and your da can’t feel the tension in the house?” She paused for a moment and looked down at Fiona’s left forearm that was being excavated by her right hand. “Look at yourself! Something’s eating away at you. It’s written on your bloody skin!”
Fiona quickly pulled her right hand away from the craterous mess she’d dug into her forearm.
“Would you give over with your notions,” Fiona said. “You’re not a bleedin’ psychologist, ma. It always gets worse in the winter. Too much central heating and not enough sunlight, that’s all.”
“And the tension in the air I have to swim through?”
“Didya ever think a twenty-year-old only-child wouldn’t be just delighted living at home? It’s suffocating, ma. I need a little freedom.”
“Freedom for your one-night stands?”
Fiona turned and smacked her mam across the face. Her mam spent a few moments just staring into the back seat, where her face had been turned to by the slap. She kept her gaze there as her chest rose and fell.
“Jesus, ma, I’m sorry!”
“Get out,” she said, unable to look at her daughter. She was seething. She had made a promise to herself that she would never hit her kids, and she knew if she took one look at Fiona in that moment she’d break that promise. “Get out, now. You’re walking.”
Fiona scrabbled for the door handle as she undid her seatbelt. She jumped out, and her mam took off before Fiona had a chance to close the door. The door teetered, ajar, and then slammed shut with the force of the car’s acceleration.
Fiona pulled down the sleeves of her fleece and started to walk. She walked through Dollymount, along Clontarf road. The wind off the bay cut through her clothes, Bull Island across the strait doing nothing to buffet the gales. She hugged herself for warmth. Her hands conveniently placed, she began to scratch the itch that had crept up to her biceps.
Winter was the worst. The cold air was dry and the strong winds wicked away moisture like they were thirsty. She spent all the sunlight hours inside in the baking, dry heat. It was no wonder her skin was bad, she told herself.
She wished she could get in a taxi there and then and go to the airport. How was she to go home now, having slapped her mam? Her own mam. Her father would kill her.
She texted her boss: Could you cover my class? I’ve had to walk in. I’m going to be 20 mins late.
Her boss replied: Why didn’t you take the train?
Fiona: It’s hard to explain. I’ll tell you when I get in.
She got to her Montessori School thirty minutes late. She stood at the gate, not wanting to go in. She couldn’t do another day with all their beautiful little faces. Their babbling little voices. It was why she became a Montessori School teacher. God knows it wasn’t for the money.
That’s why it cut so deep. Not because of her mam or her da, or what they’d say if they knew. But because if it had been five years later, if he wasn’t just a one-night stand, if she had been ready, it could all have been so different. She could’ve been happy.
When she walked into her classroom, her boss, Eva, was at the blackboard. The kids were sat in a semi-oval around her. Eva was pointing at the illustrated alphabet that ran along the top of the board.
“C,” Eva said.
“Seee,” the kids chimed in unison.
“See-see-see!” Eric continued after. Eric the echo, Fiona called him.
When Eva caught sight of her, she smiled. The kids turned to her. Ciara squealed and jumped out of her seat and ran to Fiona. Ciara hugged her thigh and pressed her little cheek against it.
“Hey, now, Ciara,” Fiona said, putting her hands on her hips. “Eva was giving you a lesson, wasn’t she?”
Ciara looked up at her sheepishly and then looked back at Eva. Fiona got down on her haunches and took Ciara’s hands in hers and looked into her eyes. “You’re a good girl, Ciara. You’re going to go back to your seat like a good girl and finish your lesson, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Fona,” she said, the Fio being beyond her fledgling vocal chords.
When they broke for lunch, Eva brought Fiona out for a smoke.
“What happened you?” Eva asked. “I thought you got a lift off your mam?”
“I did, we didn’t make it all the way.”
“Did yous break down?”
“You could say that, alright,” Fiona said.
“Oh, Christ. Did you tell her after?”
“No, worse. I slapped her.”
“Slapped her?! Jesus, fuck, how’d you manage that?”
“Aw, Jesus,” Fiona said, closing her eyes and pinching her nose. “I don’t know. She was just hovering. You know the way she does. Picking at me. Then she made a comment about me having one-night stands and I just snapped.”
“Jesus, love, I’m sorry,” Eva said, rubbing Fiona’s arm. “You have to tell her, hun. You’ll never be able to explain that away if you don’t. And you can’t go to Australia with this rift between yiz.”
Fiona took her fingertips away from the bridge of her nose and looked Eva in the eye. “You don’t know my mam. She wears a Save the 8th badge and a miraculous medal. She goes to mass three days a week and would run off with the priest if me da died. She’s got Jesus in her heart and the Pope in her head.
“She’ll hate me for slapping her, but it’ll pass. If I tell her the truth, we’ll be done for good.”
Eva had nothing to say in reply.
“Maybe I should tell her,” Fiona said with a sardonic smile.
But she didn’t mean it. When you’re an only-child, you hate your parents more, but you love them more too.
She took the train home. Her whole body felt like it was on fire, as if it were crawling with fire-ants; invisible critters biting at her, burning her. Her nails ran up and down her thighs, across her shoulders. It had spread to her face now, she couldn’t keep up.
What would she say? There was nothing to say. There was only one reasonable explanation and that was unspeakable.
By the time the train pulled into her station, she’d run out of hands. The itch was everywhere, and no amount of scratching seemed to make an ounce of difference. She slung her handbag over her shoulder as she departed the train. Her hands ran frantically from her arms to her belly, to her back. She scratched and scratched, but it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.
When she reached her front door, there were only two sensations in her body. The parts she had scratched were ripped raw and screamed with the burning pain of salted wounds. What was left of her skin cried out for punishment.
She opened the front door in tears and rushed into the living room. She could barely see her parents through the tears.
“I’m sorry, ma! I’m—”
“Jesus, Fio! What happened you?” Her mam leapt out of her chair and ran over to her. “Your face, it’s… Jesus, Fio.”
She took her daughter in her arms and held her. She was reminded of when Fiona was a baby, when the eczema had first started, when it had taken over like this. When she had to bathe her in Milton daily and lather her with Sudocrem five times a day. She had felt so helpless. Her red little baby screaming in pain, and so little she could do for her.
Fiona buried her head in her mam’s shoulder and cried.
“It’s alright, love. It’s going to be alright. We’ll bring you to the doctor’s in the morning; he’ll sort you right out.”
The morning was forgotten about, at least for the time being. Fiona waited in her room while her mam ran her a cold bath with Milton and Benzocaine. Fiona stood in her underwear, looking at herself in her full-length mirror. There was hardly a patch of white skin left. Her skin was a smattering of pink and red. Bright red track marks left by her nails ran along her arms. The lesions oozed a thin yellow pus in places. Others were growing flaky, yellow scabs. Solid papules had formed all over. The bulging vesicles had a glassy white head.
She put a finger to one of them on the back of her hand to feel how taut it was. She ran her fingertip gently over it. It felt so solid, so full, so menacing. She pulled her hand away in disgust and her nail nicked the head. It burst with a shot of pain and a thick pus, muddied with blood, landed on the mirror in front of her.
She stifled a cry of disgust into a squeal, so her mam wouldn’t hear her. She could imagine her mam’s mind right then. Like a hamster in a wheel that’s run too fast to keep up with itself and is stuck fast to the wheel as it spins round and round, panicking but unable to stop itself.
What theories has she run through by now? Fiona wondered as she sat on her bed, unable to look at her festering body anymore. A breakup gone bad? Bullying maybe? Drug addiction? Hardly. But who knew what her mam might speculate as she strove for the truth. A crisis pregnancy? Perhaps it had crossed her mind. She knew Fiona had had one-night stands, she made that strikingly clear. But an illegal abortion? No, she would’ve cast that theory aside. She knew her daughter better than that.
Fiona jumped when her mam knocked on her door.
“The bath’s ready,” her mam said as she opened the door. She froze when she caught sight of her baby’s blistered body. She had her hand half-raised to her mouth in shock when she caught herself. That wouldn’t help Fiona at all.
“Thanks, ma,” Fiona said.
Her mam left her at the bathroom door and went downstairs. Fiona went into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. She took off her underwear and stepped her right foot into the bath. The shock of the cold water stilled her bones, but once the shock passed, she felt the water quench the fire that was raging on her skin.
She stepped in fully and sank gratefully into the water. At first, some of her raw wounds protested against the alien liquid invading them. But the numbing agents quelled the protests and she finally felt relief from the constant torment.
She sank deep into the water, closing her eyes. She rested her head on the edge of the bath and tried not to think. She breathed in deeply, soaking up the sweet calming comfort of the fragrance. Fiona had always felt that the smell of lavender had a magical effect. She wasn’t sure if it was the scent itself or some deeper release. Perhaps the nostalgia of its smell allowed her to regress to a simpler time, a time when her greatest pains and fears could be soothed by a dab of Sudocrem or a cuddle.
She couldn’t help but imagine bathing her own baby. She imagined him sitting in the shallow bath as she cupped warm water over his little head. She imagined him giggling at the sensation of the water trickling down his chubby little face, his sausage arms splashing the water. The simplicity of that bliss stung her heart.
This sudden rush of thoughts was followed by a rush of sensations. The numbing effect of the Benzocaine had worn off, and her skin began to cry again. Tears crept into her eyes, but she kept them shut. She held onto that beautiful image in her mind, not wanting to muddy it with the sight of her body.
But she could feel pressure building beneath her skin. The nodes and papules were filling and swelling. The pressure reached its zenith, and she felt shots of pain as the papules began to burst, spewing their thick pus into the water. She watched as the baby in her mind’s eye grew raw and red as a rash stole over his body. Thick vesicles grew on his tender skin. They grew and filled, the pus within surging to escape. He started to wail, tears stinging the cracked corners of his eyes. The thick yellow nodes grew and covered his little body, pulsing and pulsing, until, all at once, they erupted in a torrent of pus and blood.
Her eyes shot open and she grabbed her mouth as she screamed. Then her eyes caught sight of the bath and she screamed aloud.
Thick wisps of blood pirouetted through the water like the smoke from a hundred extinguished candles. The blisters and lesions on her skin wept blood incessantly. She sat stupefied in the bath, watching the water swell from pink to red, to a dark blackish red.
Then something hidden in the water touched her feet. It was soft but solid. She pulled her feet away and cradled her knees. The water at the end of the bath sloshed as the thing began to rise through the bloody water. She watched as something the size of her baby-fingertip poked up through the surface. There were two small holes in it covered in a film of blood. The film of blood bubbled for a moment as it breathed out, and the bubbles popped.
A tiny face surged up out of the water and opened its mouth, coughing up blood before emitting a shrill shriek from its new-born lungs. The blood streaked down its face like a receding wave.
Fiona screamed. She screamed so that her parents would hear her. She screamed in the hopes she could terrify this demon-child back to the depths from which it came.
She scrabbled backwards with her feet, getting her torso halfway out of the water. The baby’s screams continued to ring out as it bobbed up and down in the sloshing blood bath, its bloody hands reaching out to her, its fingers curling as it grasped at the air. Fiona’s feet lost their purchase and she slid down and sank into the red depths.
The baby’s cries grew no quieter beneath the surface, in fact, they felt closer. She feared the blood stinging her eyes, but she feared the child more. She opened them and saw it there, floating above her, looking down at her. As it made eye-contact with her, it smiled a red, toothless smile. She screamed, the water bubbled up before her face and she swiped her hand through them, pushing the baby away. She leapt out of the water with a gasp. She could taste the iron of her own blood in her mouth. In her panic, she tripped over the edge of the bath and landed on the bathroom floor.
She hadn’t the strength to lift herself. She lay there, crying.
“Ma!” she screamed. “Mammy!”
The bathroom door swung open and hit her in the shoulder.
“Jesus! Love, what happened?!” her mam cried as she burst into the room.
“My baby!” Fiona screamed. “My baby! It came back!”
Her mam helped her into a seated position and held her.
“Baby?” she asked. “What baby?”
Fiona looked at her in disbelief. The baby’s cries had ceased. Then she looked over at the bath. It sat there placidly, murky only with soap suds. She looked back at her mam.
Come back next week, Nov. 14, 2019, for more from the Master! Subscribe below or follow my social media to get a reminder: