Lynda Tavakoli, author of Attachment and Of Broken Things, facilitates an adult creative writing class in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. Her poetry and prose have been broadcast on both BBC Radio Ulster and RTÉ Sunday Miscellany.
Her literary successes include poetry and short story prizes at Listowel, the Mencap short story competition, and the Mail on Sunday novel competition. Meanwhile, Lynda’s poems have been included in a variety of publications including Templar Poets’ Anthology Skein, Abridged, The Incubator Journal, Panning for Poems, Circle and Square, North West Words, Four X Four (Poetry NI), The Honest Ulsterman, A New Ulster and Corncrake magazine.
She has been selected as The Irish Times Hennessy poet of the month for her poems about dementia, a recurring theme in much of her poetry. Her debut short story collection, Under a Cold White Moon, was published by David J. Publishing.
I was not a quiet child I’m told, the penalty for being the youngest of seven children necessitating a degree of forthrightness on my part, but still my candour did little to gain my mother’s attention. I was, in short, her nonentity. And so it happened that from the age of five or six I set out to find a way through the seemingly impenetrable wall of her indifference.
From the vantage point of a high stool I’d often watch the back of mother’s head while she stood at work by our kitchen sink, black curls springing erratically up and down the contour of her neck while the froth of dishwater fizzed between her fingers. I couldn’t say if she was beautiful then (although she probably was I think now) but she had that look of someone long ago frayed around her edges. Such detachedness was a source of fascination to many I imagine but to a child it begot only frustration and annoyance; emotions that like some virulent staphylococcus virus seemed to invade my own psyche from a very early age.
My mother’s eyes were as grey as the dawning of a flat Irish day, and emotionless to all her children, but especially to me. It was because I was her final straw, her last sprog to contaminate an already worn-out womb and by virtue of that fact I suppose, I became her nemesis. Something I accepted with begrudging antagonism.
“Stuart,” she’d snarl through some invisible mouth in the back of her head, “Get on with your effing homework,” or “Stuart, get up them stairs and tidy up that shithole you call a bedroom,” and on and on without ever bothering to screw her neck round far enough to make eye contact with me, that final straw of hers. It was a verbal, grossly immature game she played, with me responding in kind and inevitably ending the loser to her far superior source of colourful language.
On the day of ‘the event’ as it later became known, my father had abandoned his fractious offspring to their regular after-meal skirmishes and escaped with the daily paper to the lavatory. Inevitably my mother wasted little time and like some dummiless ventriloquist embarked upon her favourite sport of Stuart-baiting in her husband’s absence.
“Stuart, fetch that drying cloth right now or I’ll scalp the legs off you,” she threatened just as the crust I was sucking on was finding itself momentarily lodged in the vicinity of my larynx. Fearful of spluttering breaded spit over my siblings and like a trout cautious of some wriggling underwater ambush, I closed my mouth and coughed the offending irritation slowly back towards my waiting stomach.
My attention however remained on the agitated stiffening of my mother’s shoulders as she waited for a retort that for the first time did not come and it was at that moment I knew I had her. As her head rotated the full one hundred and eighty degrees it needed to fix me in her sights I felt the slow grind of teeth as my jaw clamped shut. This was a game I had won before I even knew the rules and if it had an aim then, the final outcome had surely been achieved at the very beginning. Suddenly I had my mother’s complete attention without speaking so much as a single word.
“What did you say?” she hurled over at me across the linoleum, her denial at my silence oddly touching and unexpected. “What did you fucking say?”
My mouth smiled the smile of an obdurate clam sealing in words that might earlier have shrieked their way out but trapped inside my head their muteness confirmed my sudden authority. I had unwittingly discovered something wonderful; that the power of silence was infinitely more effective than the power of speech and even at that early stage of the game I knew that it was probably too late for turning back.
So there you have it: the beginning. In the kitchen of an ordinary house in some common or garden council estate I was then to become an extraordinary boy.
When, after a fortnight of insults, bribes and finally serious personal threats to my well-being no one had elicited a single murmur from my lips, my mother dragged me mutely to the doctor.
“He won’t talk, Doctor,” she told him while systematically stabbing me in the shoulders with a stiletto-pointed forefinger. Then angrily to me, “Will you?”
He asked me to open my mouth for examination and I readily obliged. In truth it was a relief to finally allow even some of the unspoken words to escape albeit noiselessly into the air for it had started to seem like they had begun to clog up my mind.
You have the control they were saying, as long as you can keep them in. But it was hard in those early days when at six years old it would have been easier to renege than not. Had it not been for the doctor’s slightly patronising response that day I think I may have succumbed to the pressure to co-operate but as it was he merely confirmed a diagnosis I had made myself.
“Mrs Chapman, there is nothing physically wrong with your son,” he told my mother, smiling. “This is a power thing. Stuart has embarked upon a game with you and right now he’s winning it hands-down.”
My feet suddenly lost contact with the floor as I found myself hauled from the surgery and I never saw the offending doctor again. Later I would hear my mother saying to our next door neighbour, “Fucking doctors, they think they know it all.”
At school the other children at first regarded me with not some small degree of suspicion. After all, my behaviour attracted the undivided attention of a great many adults but this ultimately stood in my favour because it often detracted from the misdemeanours of others. Consequently, I departed primary school with an overflow of friendships for all the wrong reasons and even those had not been verbally consummated.
Meanwhile at home, the siblings who had stuck it out had come to accept my strange behaviour over time, treating me with embarrassed indifference that served only to fuel my mother’s on-going frustrations. In the end she had been forced to seek help from the professionals for my ‘condition’ as she called it, when my father told her in front of me (it was always a source of amazement to me that because I wouldn’t speak he also thought I couldn’t hear) that “Stuart needed help because he was obviously a bloody retard and people at work had started to talk.”
I felt the indignant objections hammering against my skull in an attempted break-out and nearly relented then but he patted my head like I was the family pet and disappeared off to watch the match on telly. It was as close as I ever came to losing control.
But if my father had a casual attitude towards his seemingly retarded son then the same could not be said of his wife. Increasingly trapped inside her continued resentment she became ever more desperate to assert her authority and dragged me from one specialist to another.
“Stuart has a psychological disorder affecting his cognitive abilities,” said one.
“Stuart suffers from a condition not unlike autism and needs very specific emotional support,” offered another.
“I’m very sorry, Mrs Chapman, but your son needs a course of medication to help remedy his obviously complicated mental problems.”
But the one I most enjoyed, “Stuart is a little shit whose fucking case I intend to crack before I die,” this last always from my mother on the way home from every futile appointment.
By the time I left school at sixteen the specialists had all but given up on me, having devoted a decade to probing my subconscious without success. I was disappointed, my mother now remaining the only adversary to play the game out with, but it changed nothing at home.
Or perhaps it did. One evening my father failed to return from work. The house had been, as usual, quiet during the day, my elder siblings having by then dispersed to lead more normal lives elsewhere and I now wonder how I never noticed their leaving or indeed how long it had been since I was the only child remaining.
The food was on the table; bacon, sausages, tomatoes, potato bread and two eggs – all fried as he liked it and now coagulating on my dad’s plate. Mother sat across from me at the table, hands tidily on her lap; mine stuffed in the pocket of my sweatshirt making bigger the hole already there. Where is he?
For an hour, maybe two, we sat like dead fish frozen into an icy lake and still he did not come. Beyond the window of the kitchen, light was being sucked slowly out of the day and finally the grey gloom of evening started to invade the room. A fear was beginning to gnaw at me and although my mother had moved not an inch during that time I regarded the subtle change in her manner with growing panic.
The eyes that for so long had scorched her resentment into my soul had taken on the look of a hibernating tortoise reluctant to accept the onset of its awakening. They were dead eyes to match the dead words that finally slunk out from in between her teeth, “Now are you happy?”
My father never did come back to his wife or to me. One of my sisters said afterwards that he could no longer play the gooseberry in his marriage and I asked her, on a piece of paper, what she meant. All she did was tear it up and slap me hard across the face; meanwhile seeping through the walls of the next room I could hear my mother’s breath like an old clock ticking out the remainder of its time.
She won the game in the end, of course, as I always guessed she would. The mystery to me was how it had taken so long for her to figure the solution out. From then on she never spoke to me again and right up until her death some years later the silent retribution she exacted upon me was fitting to my crime finally proving her worth as an adversary after all.
When I returned to our wordless house after the funeral I knew that this last silence would probably see the end of me too for after all there was no sport in continuing to play the game on my own. Earlier that same day one of the family had been clearing out the kitchen drawers and cupboards, unearthing a deluge of obsolete paperwork that lay discarded in a corner waiting for final eviction to the bin. Among the pile was a dog-eared, faded blue file with my name scribbled across the front in mother’s childish handwriting and, curious, I had picked it up.
Inside, carefully organised by date, were several hundred official documents concerning my case including appointment letters and professional correspondences offering varied and diverse diagnoses on my condition.
It was in some ways touching how she’d kept those indictments for all that time and I store them now inside a box in her room where these days I seem to spend most of my time. The letters are a comfort in this soundless world of mine and sometimes I will take them out just to smell her soaped fingers lingering there with the memory of her touch.
But every now and then you might find me press my lips to the paper secretly whispering my regrets in a voice gravelled from lack of use, the sound strangely hostile to my ears. In a funny sort of way, I suppose I owe her that much.