David Butler’s novel City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Irish Novel of the Year, 2015. Arlen House is to publish his second short story collection, Fugitive, and Doire Press his third poetry collection, Liffey Sequence, both later this year.
JOSIE and her daughter EMER sitting at JOSIE’s kitchen table, teacups, plates with crumbs etc. Pen poised, EMER has a census-form open before her.
EMER: Good to go?
JOSIE: Have I a choice?
EMER: (flitting through census) Ten minutes is all it’ll take. Then I’ll drive you as far as the chipper. Ten minutes, Ma.
JOSIE: And the rest of it! You seen how fat that bloody thing is? They must want to know what colour knickers you wear.
EMER: But most of it is for if there’s someone else living here. It’s only, what?, the first six pages is for Person Number One.
JOSIE: Is that me? Person Number One?
EMER: Well? You’re the only one is living here these days.
JOSIE: So far as we know anyhow.
EMER: Wait till we see….Blah-blah- Start Here…C’mere, is someone after having a go at this already?
JOSIE: (defensive) What do you mean?
EMER: Look it! Someone’s after…. Never mind. Okay. Type of Accommodation, Detached. Built 61 to 70. Was it? Owned Outright. Fair enough, you do. Number of Rooms, that’s wrong! … Ma, did you have a go at this earlier on?
JOSIE: (Pause) Oliver was round.
EMER: Oliver? When?
EMER: You never said.
JOSIE: There’s nothing to say. (Beat) You know Oliver.
EMER: So what did he want?
JOSIE: The same as yourself, I suppose. (She notices EMER’s displeasure.) He made a joke out of it. Lets on the pen is a microphone. “You fill up my census…”
EMER: He’s feckin’ hilarious. Seriously, Ma, what was he around here for? (Suspicious.) Money. Was he after money? (Beat, JOSIE looking displeased.) I told you a hundred times Ma, that fly-by-night online shop of his is good money after bad…
JOSIE: It wasn’t money, Emer.
JOSIE: F.Y.I. Isn’t that what you people say nowadays?
EMER: He was after something, that much I can tell you.
JOSIE: Tsst! Your own brother…
EMER: Ok. When was the last time he called round? Before yesterday, I mean.
JOSIE: Polling day.
JOSIE: He called round polling day. Took me down to vote, he did.
EMER: But you told me you’d no interest. That you didn’t know a single one of the candidates.
JOSIE: Still. It was nice to get out. And he picked up twenty Major for me. Not those bloody electric yokes you do buy. You can’t get any class of a hit off of them oul things.
EMER: (Defeated) You know what they told you, after the operation. (Brightly) Right! will we make a start?
JOSIE: (grimly) Go on.
EMER: List One. Fill name and surname. Ah, Jaysus, that bloody eejit has Josie writ in.
EMER: (correcting on the paper) It’s Jo-se-phine.
JOSIE: Nobody ever called me Josephine. I was only ever Josie. All my life, I was Josie Breen. (Beat) Tsst, “Josephine”.
EMER: Josephine is what it says on your birth cert. (Pointedly) It’s what it says when they pay you your widow’s pension.
JOSIE: Now who’s kin to Oliver Breen?
EMER: Aren’t you very smart? Look, it’s just as well they do fill in the address themselves. He’d have made a bags of that, and all.
JOSIE: He phoned up to say he was going to call round. So I says to him ‘You know where I live. Which is more than I do half the time!’
EMER: Ma! You shouldn’t… You’ll only encourage him.
JOSIE: How do you mean, encourage him?
EMER: (quiet) Nothing.
JOSIE: Emer? How do you mean, encourage him?
EMER: Nothing, Ma. It’s… (Uncomfortable, leafing through form.) Ok. List One, Persons Present. Tsst look it! He’s after starting to write his name in! O.L.I. (Beat) Persons Absent would be nearer the mark. Ok, next page. Person One. “What is your name?”
JOSIE: Didn’t we just have that?
EMER: Josephine Breen. Sex?
JOSIE: Right! (Beat) You?
EMER: You don’t want to know, Ma, believe me. What is you date of birth?
JOSIE: First of the Fourth, Nineteen Forty Six.
EMER: Nineteen Forty One.
JOSIE: Was it?
EMER: You know bloody well it was!
JOSIE: So ask me one you don’t know the answer to…
EMER: Ok smart arse! Try this for size. What is your ethnic or cultural background?
JOSIE: My what?
EMER: Your ethnic or cultural background.
JOSIE: I’m Irish, love. I was born in the Coombe Hospital.
EMER: But are you White Irish, Black Irish, or Asian Irish? Or Irish Traveller, there’s a box for that, too. I’ll tick that if you’re not careful.
JOSIE: They think of everything.
EMER: We’ll say White. (Beat) Religion?
JOSIE: What are my options?
EMER: I’ll put down RC.
JOSIE: Have they Protestant?
EMER: They have Islam, if that’s any good to you.
JOSIE: Islam? Is them the fellas is always shooting their guns up in the air? (Beat) Every time you turn on the news and a town is after falling somewhere, they’re always shooting their guns up in the air. It’s a wonder the bullets don’t come back down on top of them…
EMER: Here’s one. How many children have you given birth to?
JOSIE: Well there’s only you and Oliver. So far as I know.
EMER: But what about…didn’t you tell me? Wasn’t there meant to be a girl, the year before you had Ollie?
JOSIE: But she died, love. She was born with a hole in her heart.
EMER: But all the same…
JOSIE: She was never baptised. I wanted to call her Deirdre, after my mother. But it would’ve been unlucky… She only lived a few hours, you see. When I saw the blue colour of her, I told God, take her, says I, or take me…
EMER: All the same, Ma. She was born alive. I mean, she wasn’t a still-birth.
JOSIE: Well I don’t know. Is that what they mean, do you think?
EMER: I’d say so. It says ‘have you given birth to’. It doesn’t say, and lived more than a couple of days.
JOSIE: And come here, what if I was a man? How’s a father supposed to answer ‘How many children have you given birth to’? I’d love to see the cut of any of them if they had to ‘give birth to’. That’d soften their cough.
EMER: This one is for women only. It says.
JOSIE: For women only. (Pointedly) Aye!
JOSIE Well how about… Let’s say you and what’s-her-name ever decide to adopt a child. They’re allowing that these days I believe.
EMER: Cesca, mother. How come you can never remember? Her name’s Francesca. (Beat) I bet you you can name every one of Oliver’s exes.
JOSIE: I doubt that! I mean, can you?
They both laugh.
EMER: Alright. We better move on. Fourteen. Can you speak Irish?
JOSIE: Ní hea.
EMER: I’ll put down ‘No’. Next page. Do you speak a language other than English or Irish at home?
JOSIE: I ask you! What do they want to know all that stuff for anyhow? I mean to say, what good does it do them?
EMER: They want to know how the country is changing, I suppose.
JOSIE: How it’s changing? Sure all they’d have to do is take a walk down Moore St or Parnell St and they’d see soon enough how the country is changing! Or if they ever stood away from their computers for five minutes, they’d soon see how all the young fellas and the young ones have their noses stuck into a phone the whole bloody time. A smart phone, isn’t that what they call it?
EMER: You should use that mobile phone I got you, Ma. If you don’t want to call me, you could at least carry it around with you so I can call you.
JOSIE: I do carry it around with me.
EMER: But what good is it carrying it around with you when it’s always turned off?
JOSIE: Well? What good is it having it turned on when I don’t know how to answer it?
EMER: I showed you till I was blue in the face how to answer it. I declare to God, the only reason you can’t use that phone is because you don’t want to learn how to use that phone.
JOSIE: Go on, ask me another of your questions.
EMER: Ok. Do you have any of the following long-lasting conditions or difficulties? Blindness, no. Deafness, no. A difficulty with basic physical activities such as walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting…
JOSIE: What did you mean, when you said ‘don’t encourage him’?
EMER; I’m sorry?
JOSIE: We were talking about your brother. You said, ‘don’t encourage him.’
EMER: It was nothing.
JOSIE: Because I do have difficulty climbing the stairs.
EMER: It’s hardly surprising, when you’ve had a hip operation…
JOSIE: No, even before.
EMER: How do you mean? You never told me you had difficulty with the stairs.
JOSIE: I did tell you Emer. I do get dizzy.
JOSIE: Any time I’ve to climb up. Or when I’ve to come down.
EMER: No, you never. When did you tell me?
JOSIE: I told you…I don’t know. (Beat) I know I told you.
EMER: You haven’t said that to Oliver, about the stairs? (Pause) Ma, I’m telling you. He won’t be happy until he has you in a home!
JOSIE: A home.
EMER: I’m telling you, Ma. But you won’t listen. Cesca says she saw him dropping into a nursing home out in Bray.
JOSIE: Who said?
EMER: Francesca, mother. (Beat. Shakes head.) I’m not in the mood.
JOSIE: Ask me another of your questions.
EMER: Fran-cesca. (Beat) Do you have an intellectual disability. No.
EMER: NO. Do you have a difficulty with learning, remembering or concentrating?
JOSIE: Is there a box for ‘all of the above’?
EMER: D’you not see? You making a joke out of it! You wouldn’t be able to make a joke out of it if you had ‘all of the above’. Or any of them, for that matter
JOSIE: Look, love. I have good days and I have bad days. Today is a good day.
EMER: So what are you saying? You want to be put into a home, is it?
JOSIE: (with horror) No!
EMER: Well, then.
JOSIE: I do get… lonely, Emer. And I do get frightened.
JOSIE: There’s days I don’t dare step outside of that door (pointing). Because I don’t know if I’d ever find my way back home. (Beat) There’s days I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.
EMER: But I asked you in the hospital did you want live-in help. They’ve agencies. And you said over your dead body.
JOSIE: Well? Would you? Would you want a stranger living in your house, telling you what you can eat and when you’re to go to bed, and dressing you up like a little dolly?
Long pause. EMER has put the pen down and is examining JOSIE.
EMER: Right, will we get this done? I’ll bring you down to the shops, after. We can go for a one-and-one in Beshoff’s, would you like that?
JOSIE: Oliver says there’s lovely flats out in Bray, with no stairs in them.
EMER: Jesus, Ma! Do you not see…?
JOSIE: All I’m saying, this place is gone too big for me to look after. It always was too big, once your Da died.
EMER: And what? Oliver is suddenly going to start calling round, because you’re living in a bedsit out in Bray?
JOSIE: But I don’t know anyone who lives around here anymore. It’s all foreigners.
EMER: Well? You won’t know anyone who lives out in Bray, either. (Beat) Mother. (She stands, walks behind her, and begins to massage her shoulders.) Can you not see what’s going on here, love? Oliver wants you to sell up, because he thinks that way there’ll be a packet of money left over…
JOSIE: (Sighing, her hand on EMER’s hand.) He wants to put down roots, I suppose.
EMER: At forty-nine, he wants to put down roots…
JOSIE: It’s only natural. With the baby and everything.
EMER: Baby! (Stands away from JOSIE) What baby?
JOSIE: He’s going to have a baby. Did he not tell you?
EMER: Who’s going to have a baby?
JOSIE: What’s-her-name. With the hair.
EMER: He’s lying! He’s making that up…
JOSIE: No. She was here with him. (Beat) The Brazilian girl.
EMER: She’s going to have a baby?
JOSIE: In another three months, I think he said. (Indicating) She’s that big. (Beat) If it’s a girl, they want to call her Josefina, after me. She told me that.
EMER: Jesus, Ma! (Beat) Is that what this is about?
JOSIE: I said to them I couldn’t care less what they called it, just so long as it was born healthy…
EMER: Is that what this is all about?
JOSIE: It’d be lovely all the same, having someone to spoil.
JOSIE: And not have everyone always fussing over me the whole time, like it was me was the babby.
EMER: Ma, can you not see…
JOSIE: That’s what I’d like, I told him.
EMER: (defeated) Can you not see…