Of Hearts and Bones by Niamh Mulvey

We are delighted to present an excerpt from hearts and bonesNIamh Mulvey’s first collection of short stories.

First lovers make mistakes, siblings try to forgive each other, and parents struggle, fail, and struggle again. Teenage souls are swayed by a euphoric faith in a higher power, then a devotion to desire, trapped between different notions of what might be true. Silent revolutions are happening in drawing rooms, on river banks, in crowded pubs and empty churches, and years later we wonder why we did the things we did.

Hearts and Bones is a book about relationships. It explores what love does to us and how we survive it.


Of Mothers’ Day

I was supposed to meet my mother in a downtown gallery. I hadn’t seen her in five years and I hoped she would think I looked better than she thought. As I got ready, I noticed how my body was wearing down – the skin inside my elbow joints and around my eyes was starting to become thin and papery, like the wings of a bird. a moth or other fragile flying thing. But it didn’t really bother me because it reminded me of her – the age she was when I first met her. Although I flatter myself, of course; I was born at twenty-four, and am now in my early forties.

A cool wind blew and shook the first flowers from the trees in the garden, and everything in my house was beautiful and well done, and I saw everything with her eyes before I went to meet her. The kids were at school, my husband was at work, it was a Tuesday, it was quiet on the street as I walked to the subway, it was mid morning. I had a wonderful life that I hadn’t deserved, and everything we owned pointed to that fact, so I couldn’t invite him to sit here among my things and drink coffee from the little cups I we bought in Istanbul two summers ago.

It was his fault if I had so many. She taught me to think of myself as someone special, and so I found myself working for a fine art magazine – passionate, broke and ridiculously, embarrassing. I didn’t know then how money wraps around art, I didn’t know that when a nice young man whose father was on the board fell in love with me, people smiled and nodded in a way that showed they weren’t surprised, that this was how things were. I knew nothing and she taught me nothing. So it was her fault, and it was my fault, and that’s why things happened the way they did, and that’s why I hadn’t seen her for five years.

I found out I was pregnant again the day I got the message from my mum asking me to meet her – and for a moment I thought of it all as a wonderful coincidence that lit up the way to an eventual reconciliation. But when I saw her sitting in the cafe near the gallery wing which I too belatedly remembered had been built by pharmaceutical blood money, I realized that this meeting was not about all of me or my body and her new life – it was around her, and her body and her tired, declining old life. And I felt irritated by the way she had shown me before, and again, to be thoughtless, self-centered, and silly.

She was sitting quietly over a scone and a cup of tea. Her hair seemed to have disappeared, she wore a scarf on her head. I sat down opposite her. She held out her hands, I put mine on them. His face showed the impact of the disease and I was momentarily unable to speak.

“I need some of his money,” she said and I nodded.

“I’m pregnant,” I said, and she laughed. I smiled back and she looked at me like she was proud for a tiny second.

Spring is the best time of year to live in this city and it always reminds me of our old apartment south of the river, the place of my earliest memories. I have this feeling of a pram under a tree and the breeze moving through the leaves making shadowy shimmers on a blanket and I think maybe I’m lying under that blanket. I can close my eyes and live this moment but I’m afraid to do so. I have the impression that the young woman she was was walking near me, under the tree, looking for something for me. There’s music somewhere, the neighborhood we lived in was noisy and full of people from everywhere, people who had nothing but these pretty streets with ramshackle Victorian terraces near a park. I never went to that part of town again, I didn’t need it, I had risen above it and so in my mind it was shrouded in the past, with just being the two of us, as was the case everywhere these days.

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Listen: hearts and bones – Niamh Mulvey talks to RTE Arena

My mother then told me that she could no longer afford the mortgage payments on her small house in the suburban town where she lived; her illness meant she could no longer work.

“Come and stay with us,” I said. “We have so much space. You could be with the kids. I had imagined this happening. I had imagined her coming to me, needing something. Many times I had imagined this. My mother pulled her hands away and looked away.

I got up to get myself something to eat. It was very early in the pregnancy and I was full of appetite for food and sleep. While queuing, I noticed how lively all the other customers in this cafe looked. They were all mostly close to my mother’s age. They wore thick gold rings, baggy pants, bifocals with rose rims. They looked at the cakes and the piles of pastries, their prosperous, eager, frank faces.

My mother wore supermarket sneakers, faded jeans and a cotton sweater under a cardigan. But to me, she still looked elegant. She worked as a cashier in a supermarket. She had arranged for herself an organized little life, as clean as a well-made bed. I was proud of her for that, proud of her autonomy. I didn’t even know how much money my husband earned. It was too embarrassing to know. I’ve read articles in the press about how hard it is to manage these days and found it hard to really believe it, even though I had been in that position myself. But my current life was so real, so enveloping that it was almost impossible to see beyond it.

While waiting to pay, I noticed that the sexagenarian in front of me was holding a little boy of the same age as my daughter by the hand. He looked around the bustling cafe, his cheeks flushed and adorable. His grandmother kept her eyes fixed on him the whole time, even paying the assistant. He absently put his small hand on her leg and I saw her thin face registering his touch.

Back at the table, I said to my mother, why don’t you come at least a little, the children would like to see you. That wasn’t really true: the children already had a group of devoted grandparents who lived locally and who showered them with attention and love. Another grandma would have been nice, but along the same lines, another book on their well-stocked shelves would have been nice.

“Kids ask where you are all the time,” I said. “They wonder why I don’t have a mum. Why I have no family. I laughed. “That’s a good question, isn’t it?”

“Another baby,” my mother said. “I guess only rich people can afford to have big families these days.”

“Three isn’t much,” I said, but she was right. No one I knew from my magazine days had more than one or two children, unless they married rich people like me. And no one had married as rich as me.

“It’s true,” said my mother. You would need a few more to fill this house.

‘Oh, we moved. I didn’t tell you? I said. ‘Just down the street. Stamp duty made it a bit nasty, but you should see the garden. I heard myself say these things, but I couldn’t stop. “It’s like an orchard. It’s so nice for children to be close to nature. I spoke those last words slowly, feeling them destroy any chance of anything.

My mother’s lips were tight and pale.

“Anyway,” I said. ‘Tell me how much. We can make it a monthly payment, if that’s easier.

She didn’t say anything. Her hands were shaking a little, and I thought I felt guilty but she was old and sick, why wouldn’t she be shaking.

“Let’s go see this exhibit,” I said, recklessly. I knew she was expecting me to leave, but I wanted to wring every last bit of misery out of the afternoon, so I remembered, so I remembered not to hope anymore. I had to learn, over and over again, that I couldn’t expect her to love me for who I was now.

hearts and bones is published by Picador

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