Pull the covers over you if you’re cold.
There we are – snug as a bundle of bugs in a rug!
Now, are we ready?
This all happened long ago. Before you were grown up. Before you were the big, strong girls and boys you are now! You were just babies, just the littlest bitty things. It was up to me and your father to protect you, to keep you safe because your eggs were so soft, like the frogspawn down at Clarke’s Bridge, even when big and about to burst, they were only ever the size of fingers – long, skinny fingers, a dozen hanging under your father’s chin.
Like this, see? Look at you all wriggling away!
Isn’t that silly looking?
Your eggs were see-through, like plastic, and if you looked close, really, really close, you could see yourself Fergal, and all your sisters, all tucked up in little pink twists. Your eyes were just black dots and on your tummies were yellow balloons – that was your yolk, your breakfast, lunch and dinner, and every day it got smaller as you got bigger. And running all through each egg were veins, red and black, leading to your bright, beating hearts, fierce little engines going ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump. I’d sit there, beside your father, in the window seat, or out on the swing, and I’d watch those furious specks of scarlet, going off like fairy lights.
So alive. So happy, so delighted to be born.
My little babies.
But if you touched your shell, you’d give a sharp little wriggle, like you were saying Oh stop Mammy! I’m trying to sleep! So I’d just cover you up again and let you drift off, let the lot of you sleep, you and your poor tired father.
He had the hardest job!
At first your father was all, ‘What do we do? How do we get them off? They’re growing, they’re growing, I can feel them!’ He was always one to panic – if it wasn’t the eggs growing on his neck and chin, it was the phone bill, or the new jacket I’d bought. He’d throw up his hands: ‘How are we going to afford this?’
See, we’d only been married about a month at that stage. We were still working things out, still both very young. None of our parents knew we’d tied the knot. They would have been shocked, I’m sure! Your grandfather, your father’s father, he expected his perfect boy to follow him into the family business, not go off gallivanting round the countryside with some girl.
But that’s the old saying, isn’t it, the heart wants what the heart wants…
True, but sometimes it takes the brain a while to catch up!
Your father took his time getting used to you.
He’d get a bit worked up, especially when your eggs started pushing out further. I tried explaining to him, tried to calm him down, but nothing I said ever seemed to get through. And as you got bigger, as you popped your heads out, he only got more upset, and there got to be a time, babbies, when I had to watch him in case he did something stupid.
I couldn’t leave him alone with scissors, anything sharp. Once I caught him with a cigarette lighter – he’d burned his jaw badly, but luckily enough you weren’t hurt. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ he’d say to me. ‘Can’t you see that this is wrong? Can’t you see I’m in pain? Why do you want this to happen?’
He’d come out with such things, your silly da!
‘Please,’ he’d say. ‘Please, please, please, there’s still time, we can stop this!’
When he got like that there was no talking to him! I’d get angry myself – I’d start thinking, what was his problem? Could he not be excited about you? Would I have to do all the work on me own?
But I wasn’t being fair.
All your father needed was a bit of time and understanding.
He didn’t need me jumping down his throat morning, noon and night.
So your father stayed indoors, under lock and key. We knew about the sunlight then and I don’t know what he would have done if he’d gotten out with you. And I waited. Because I loved your daddy, and I knew, no matter how hard he was finding things at the moment, I knew he would come around, that he’d accept it.
We wanted a family.
One night he woke me.
In the eggs’ gentle glow he looked very serious indeed.
‘It’s happening, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘It’s really happening.’
He put his hands around you and I wish you could have heard it yourself, loves, the change in his voice. He whispered: ‘I don’t think I can stop this. I don’t think I want to anymore. It’s like there’s a voice… I can’t quite hear it, but I know it’s there, what it’s saying…’
I said to him, ‘That’s love, that’s love speaking.’ And I kissed him, and I kissed you, each of my lovely little babies. And after that he was as excited as I was, nervous, worried, but excited. The most important thing in the world was keeping you happy and keeping you safe.
‘They need to be warm,’ he’d say, ‘They’re telling me we have to keep them warm.’ So what we’d do, you’ll laugh at this. We’d get a pair of auld socks and we’d stretch them out and knot them together around his head, like this, see? Isn’t that dotey? A little bow on his head, you should have seen him.
‘You must think I look like a goose,’ he’d laugh.
Taking care not to squish you, we’d keep you toasty and snug and when you got bigger we used a couple of big thick scarfs, so your daddy would be so bundled up, the only part you’d see was the tip of his nose! ‘Don’t laugh at me. Don’t laugh at me. This isn’t happening to you!’
He’d sit with you in the dark, and I’d go out and do the shopping, go to the bank and all that, the chemist’s, the hardware store, and it was difficult for him, it was, staying in the house all the time, particularly when you used up your yolk and you had to get food from elsewhere.
You were hungry little monsters!
You started eating the strangest things – ‘It’s them,’ he’d laugh. ‘They’re making me do it!’ No rashers or sausages for your da, no. I had to catch frogs at the reservoir, chasing after them with a net, chopping them up in the sink at home! Yuk! Can you imagine that? Frogs and bark and nettles and leaves! All mashed up in a little bowl!
‘I hate this,’ he’d say. ‘But I can’t stop!’
If he tried to eat anything other than stuff from the reservoir he’d get fierce sick and you’d twist and twist in your eggs as if you were saying Oh Mammy! What’s this shepherd’s pie nonsense? Where are our yummy frogs?
But you ate faster than I could feed him.
Your father got thinner and thinner.
The bones in his toes and fingers were the first to go. He’d hold up his hands. ‘I can’t feel them,’ he’d say, and the ends of them gone soft and black and bent. All the outer bits were shrivelling up, wasting away – the tips of his ears, the end of his nose. His hair came out when I stroked it.
‘You must think I look like a monster,’ he’d say.
He couldn’t leave the house, even if he wanted to.
But then, the only thing that needed to be strong was you.
He’d cry sometimes, in the small hours. ‘I don’t think I’m giving them enough. I’m failing them. I’m a bad father.’ And I’d put my arms around him, kiss him where I could. ‘No, no, love, you’re the best father, you’re giving them everything. Don’t you worry, just sleep. Just sleep.’
He did it all because he loved you and he wanted you to have the best of everything.
Near the end, when the only things still left to him were his jaw and his teeth, he’d sing to you. He still had his voice, your father had a lovely voice – I do wish you’d listen to the tapes he recorded for you – but he’d sing to you, all the songs we used to sing, back before –
I’ve told you about that, haven’t I?
Who me and your father were?
We were Owen and Orla, and we were quite famous, in our own little way. I’d play the guitar and the harmonica and your father would sing. We did all the clubs and functions and things around Meath and Dublin, travelling about in our old beaten-up van. We sang all the old standards and a few of our own.
‘Kerry Mountains Misty’, that was your father’s favourite.
But I always had a soft spot for ‘My Lovely Leitrim Lass’.
We came here, to the town, because we were booked to perform at a going away do. Someone was heading off to the big city, the usual thing – oh goodbye forever, even though you’re only forty minutes up the road! But your father and I, we weren’t complaining, because we got our fee and half a bag of chicken wings.
When the do was over we headed back to our van. We’d parked it out of the way, up in the fields near Barty Rooney’s. It was the height of summer, and the night was… oh it was desperate, not a breath of air, and the van was like a sauna. Couldn’t get a wink of sleep, we were sweltering inside.
It was your father’s idea.
And I know, I know, it was naughty of us.
But we took the bikes down from the back of the van and we cycled up into the hills where we’d heard there was a reservoir. The stars were out and bright, you know, like on a frosty night? And everything was quiet and still and there was no fence around the reservoir, there was no-one to stop us.
We left our clothes between the trees and we held hands and ran to the edge and jumped! And oh my, was the water cold! Like a slap, everywhere on your body at once! Took your breath away!
And the water was so clear, babies, and we paddled about, the trees around us so white in the darkness, and looking up, there was only a little circle of sky above. And down across the stars, a shooting star in blue! I said, ‘Look, look, make a wish, Owen, make a wish!’ We’d been splashing about and chatting, but that was when I noticed your father wasn’t replying to me anymore. I couldn’t hear the sound of splashing.
I turned. Your father was frozen at the centre of the reservoir.
He had a look on his face.
‘Something,’ he said.
That was all he managed to say.
Your father was under for only a couple of moments and then he was struggling and splashing and when he came out on to the stone verge of the reservoir he brought up all the water he’d swallowed. When I asked what had happened, he said: ‘I saw the stones on the bottom. All I could see were the stones on the bottom.’
That was it. All he would say.
And well, that was the end of our little adventure wasn’t it?
So back on our bikes and back to the van, and your father shivering – couldn’t get warm regardless how many blankets and sheets we piled on.
The next morning came the first sign you were on your way. From behind his ears all the way round to his throat, bubbles on his neck. No matter how hard he poked and pulled they wouldn’t burst. ‘They don’t hurt,’ he said. ‘They’re just there.’
We decided not to move on to our next gig in Ashbourne. We could take a day or two off and see if the bubbles went away. They didn’t. They kept growing and growing and we decided, maybe we should go to the doctor.
It was that Dr Crawford we saw.
He took one quick look. ‘Time,’ was all he said. ‘It needs time.’
I remember… arguing with him…
I’m not quite sure about what, my memory’s a little foggy on the details… But I think I was worried about your father, what was happening to him. I remember standing in the reception, trying to keep your father on his feet, shouting at the door as the doctor closed it. I didn’t know what to expect, and I thought it would be something awful, something harmful that was coming.
But Dr Crawford didn’t do anything.
In the end we were asked to leave. He had others to see, his regulars, and we weren’t from round there anyway. Others must have felt the same and paid us a visit while we were away, because when we came back, we found our van had been broken into. All our stuff was gone, or strewn about the hedges. My guitar was in bits.
And the van… the engine had been stripped out, two wheels were missing. It was horrible, seeing it like that, like it was a body, just gutted and abandoned there. We loved that old van. It had taken us safely from Youghal to Kinnegad. The first home we’d had together.
‘What are we going to do?’ I asked your father.
‘We’ll think of something,’ he said.
But we didn’t, and we had no money and nowhere else to go. We had to make do with what was left to us. At least the nights were still warm. And a night or two later, as we slept in the van, I had a…
I think it was like a dream.
An understanding, at least.
I was in the water, and… I wasn’t alone.
Ha, when I start thinking about it, it slips away, bit by little bit, and then the memory is gone. Like a little rabbit going down its burrow and the more you go after, it just goes deeper and darker…
It doesn’t matter. Whatever it was, I felt different in the morning and every day after. Don’t ask me how, but I knew what was coming now. The worry and the fear were gone. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait.
I told your father. I said they’d be coming soon. Our babies would be coming soon.
‘Our babies?’ he said, and he had a wild look on his face. ‘What are you on about?’
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘I know we’re young, but we can make it work.’
‘Make it work, make it work? I’ve got growths on me face – I’ve got things growing on me!’ And he started to pull at you, tried to tear you away, and I screamed, I screamed and I reached for his hands –
And then there was a bang on the side of the van.
We pulled open the door, and standing out in the rain was Dr Crawford.
He looked at your father and me. ‘They’re progressing well,’ he said. ‘But they can’t stay here. They’ll need warmth. They’ll need protecting.’
Your father began to argue. ‘Am I mad?’ he said, and there were tears in his eyes. ‘Am I the only one who sees this?’
But between Dr Crawford and me we were able to talk him round.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ’It’ll be easier to treat you, it’ll be easier to cure you.’
Naughty of Mammy to lie to him, I know, but he wasn’t ready yet.
But that is how we got our little home with our twisty chimney and our lovely red door. The people in town were very good, understanding. Made a place for us. Owen and Orla got put on hold, and when I wasn’t working down at the bookies I looked after your father and you.
You kept growing, every hour, every day.
‘This is madness’ was your father’s constant refrain for the first few months. But when he accepted you it got easier for us all. And that was important because by the time you were almost ready, you become far more reliant on him than me.
He was very weak near the end. All that was left to him had gone into growing you, making you big and strong. I can see him now, in the chair by the bay window, the heaters on full blast around him, the curtains closed and covered in air fresheners. He’d become so small and soft we had to set him in a baby seat, what remained of his arms and legs rolled back and covered in socks. He’d have his bobble hat on and the scarves around his neck and bits of gauze over his eyes because of the glow of the eggs. And even though he was hurting, even though he was at the last of his strength, he’d be singing to you.
He was very brave, your father.
All the way up to the end.
The night it happened I came home late from work.
The moment I opened the door I knew something was wrong
I looked at the chair where your father was propped.
‘I couldn’t catch her,’ he said. He was crying, the tears leaking out under the gauze. ‘I couldn’t catch, love, I couldn’t catch.’ He tried to lift his boneless arms and I could see, under his chin, one of the eggs had burst, was hanging loose…
And in his lap, she lay.
‘I’m sorry,’ your father was saying. ‘I’m sorry.’
As gently as I could, I took her from him. I held her for a moment, cradled her in my arms. She was… she was so beautiful, your sister. But she hadn’t been finished in time. There was nothing he could have done. I lay her in one of the boxes on the kitchen table, those shoeboxes we’d been collecting for this night, filling them with scraps of fabric, writing on them the names we’d chosen for you.
Your sister’s name was Faith.
I went back to your father. I held him and I kissed him.
‘It’s not your fault,’ I told him. ‘It’s not your fault.’
He kept saying, ‘I failed her.’
I had to tell him to stop, that we couldn’t think about that now. ‘The rest of them are coming now,’ I said. ‘They need us, the rest of our babies will need us.’
I had to think of you, my babies, my beautiful boy. My beautiful girls.
Your father cried out. There was movement amongst the eggs.
The longest, longest night I’ve ever endured began.
We called for Dr Crawford but we got no answer
We were alone.
I filled a basin with hot water, brought a stack of towels and blankets from the airing cupboard. I sterilised scissors, just in case you had umbilical cords. I was just kneeling in front of him when the second egg-casing split and out you came, Catherine, the first of our babies. I caught you in a fold of cloth, wiped the jelly from your gills – you were blue and limp, and I held my breath –but then you opened your mouths and began to cry.
‘Show me,’ your father said. ‘Show me.’
‘One moment,’ I said. ‘Just let me wipe her down.’
But when I went to lift the gauze from his eyes…
Your father, Owen Monroe, the love of my life, was already gone.
He gave you the last of his strength, the strength you needed to come into the world. But I had no time to say goodbye, no time even to think – at that moment the next egg split, and then the next, and I was taking you from your casings, cleaning and carrying you, Elizabeth and Margaret, Penelope and Dolores, setting you down in your own boxes of felt and crepe, the sunlamps helping your shells to harden.
And you, little Fergal, you were the last.
You had to fight your way out past all the hanging skin and empty casings.
But you were a scrappy little one. You wouldn’t be deterred!
At last you fell into my hands and there we all were, we had a family.
After eight long months we were all together.
You won’t remember, but I showed you, each of you, to your father.
Told him your names.
And I wish… I wish that we had…
No, no Mammy’s okay, Mammy’s okay, she’s got you, and that’s all that matters.
After that, as well as welcoming you to the world, we had to say goodbye to your father. But the funeral home wouldn’t touch him. I don’t know what was wrong with them but they kicked up such a fuss. And I thought Dr Crawford might help but him and your father, there was no love lost there. I pleaded, and I said ‘Look, look, all of his remains, I’ve got them all in this box,’ and I tried to hand it to him. ‘All I need you to do is put him into the ground. Do that kindness for me.’
But in the end, I do think he’d want to be near you anyway. And it’s nice isn’t it, having him close? Going down to the end of the garden and leaving flowers, it’s our place and we don’t have to share it with anyone. He would have loved that.
But more than that I know he would have loved to see you grow up, to become the darling little boys and girls you are.
He would have fought for you.
Like when the woman who ran the kindergarten took me aside on your second day. I forget her name, but I remember the smile on her face as she said to me, ‘Now, I don’t want to upset you, but your children. They can’t come here anymore. I know you can’t see it, but they aren’t right.’
Can you believe that? Can you believe she had the gall to say that to me?
How dare she.
I thought of your father. I thought of everything he’d sacrificed to bring you into the world, all the pain and the hurt, all his dreams put on hold.
I thought of him and sweet little Faith.
And I swung at her.
Can you imagine that? Your little mammy throwing a punch!
But I got her, right in the eye—and I told her, I warned her, no-one threatens my children, no-one belittles them, or makes them feel worthless.
You were my world.
I would do anything, anything to keep my babies safe and happy.
Time passed. You grew up.
I’d watch you, heading off into town again, sacks slung across your shells, staying off the street, off the pavements, away from all that horrible sunlight. Down you’d go, down the steps he built for you and into your lovely little ditch with all your fairy lights strung along the length. By nightfall I’d know you’d be back, with your lunchboxes full and the biggest smiles on your faces.
And I’d think – once, those were my husband’s eggs, so small, so defenceless, so dependent on their mammy and daddy, and look now at what they had become, strong and joyful and independent. And I know in my heart he would have been so proud, so proud of his little boy, his little girls.
And – what’s that, Dolores?
Oh, you’re hungry again?
Here, let me just –
Just take the gauze from my eyes and I’ll fold myself out for you again –
There’s enough – There’s enough for you all!
Be careful with Mammy! I’m thin – I’m too –
Graham Tugwell is an Irish writer and performer who has had over eighty short stories published across five continents. His project Down Below the Reservoir (Twitter: @SomethingStirs) is Ireland’s first horror fiction podcast.
Image credit: UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences