Tough Love by Ava Sedgwick

“You need fattening up.” Mrs Murphy slapped another ladleful of boiled turnip onto her grown son’s plate. “Anyone would think I wasn’t feeding you.”
       Three months ago, when Alan returned to the nest, she bought him a set of matching shirts with the same confidence as she used to buy his nappies. She knew his measure. Now the collar gaped at his neck and the cuffs seeped across his hands. “I think you’re coming down with something.”
       Alan made fork marks in his mash. “I’m fine.”
       She frowned as she sucked on a rind. It was obvious what was stripping the flesh from her son.
       She had never liked Noreen. When they moved in together, ignoring her protests, her fears soon proved founded. They ate take-aways, drank on weekdays, slept through Sunday Mass. Mrs Murphy had to nag Alan to come home for a proper meal. And let’s not forget her having to strip him of his trousers so she could patch a knee. Shameful neglect, that’s what it was.
       The girl was a disgrace. Whenever Mrs Murphy went to visit, and she tried for her son’s sake to go as often as possible, she’d pack bleach and rubber gloves to give their bathroom a good scrub. And did Noreen ever thank her? Pretended not to notice more like. Not that Mrs. Murphy made a show of it. It wasn’t her place to criticise.
       When Alan found work in the city, she knew trouble was coming. People shouldn’t stray far from their roots. And Alan was like a tender plant needing her prudent staking to thrive. A shy boy, her long-awaited child. Her only child. Almost overnight he went from pudgy toddler to tall, gangly man with protruding Adam’s apple and flapping feet. He wasn’t ready to be cut loose.
       The job was at an insurance firm. As she explained to her neighbours, Alan wasn’t a salesman. Her boy was far too honest for that. No, he worked in administration. Spent his days checking forms in a nice, private cubicle surrounded by other nice, private cubicles.
       He had not told her he was applying. She hid her hurt at his lack of consultation because she understood why he wanted to leave. It was the cattle. When he first showed his fear, she had begged Mr Murphy to sell them and rear sheep instead. But her husband was as stubborn as a dried bloodstain. Told her that he was not going to change his livelihood because a child had a fright. Well, no surprise what came of that.
       She didn’t try to stop Alan, even took it upon herself to organise his lodgings. Weekdays only, she knew he’d want to come home on weekends. When he rang one Thursday to say he was staying in town she smelled danger as sure as a gas leak.
       The next morning, she caught the first train to the city, marched around that felted maze of an office until she found him. Alan said he was busy. She told him not to worry, she didn’t mind waiting. Lunch was her treat.
       Over ham sandwiches and tea, he told her he’d met a girl. He had never mentioned a girl before. Mrs. Murphy wasn’t selfish, she put her desire for grandchildren to one side until she could find out more. Alan was easy prey. And, sure enough, this Noreen appeared to have snared him good and proper. He blushed when he said her name.
       But Mrs Murphy restrained her tongue. All she said was that he need not sacrifice a visit home, they could both come for Sunday lunch. She would make a pot roast.
The beef was defrosting when Alan rang to say Noreen was ill. No, he wasn’t sure about next weekend. Mrs Murphy believed in plain speaking. She asked if he was ashamed of his family or ashamed of his girlfriend. A date was set.
       And down they came. At least as far as Noreen was concerned. Poor Alan. It was clear she had notions above her station. Mrs Murphy wasn’t fooled by a bunch of flowers or soft-soaping with compliments on her gravy. Mark my words, she said to her husband later, if she marries our son this farm will be sold before we’re out of the morgue. That he claimed Alan would likely do that regardless was so obviously a response to a pretty face that she saw no point in replying.
       When computers made Alan redundant, she stepped up and gave him an allowance. No son of hers would be dependent on the taxes of others. She didn’t bother to consult Mr Murphy. She managed their finances and she knew what was right.
       It was not long after Noreen learned about this generosity that she upped and left. She must have known she couldn’t match such standards. And with Alan paying the rent alone, he was only squandering his inheritance by staying there. Best he come home.
       Now, as she watched him struggle to finish his supper, she wanted to draw her son onto her lap and spoon-feed him as she had back when they were each other’s everything. “You’re not well,” she said.
       “I’m fine.”
       “Don’t you be telling me otherwise when the truth is there for the taking. A mother knows.”
       Mr Murphy didn’t look up from the newspaper spread out in front of him. “Let the boy be.”
Her gaze stayed on her son: “I’m going to book you a doctor’s appointment tomorrow.”
Mr Murphy sighed and turned the page. Alan masticated. A statue of the Madonna watched over them from the fridge top. “I think that wind will pick up,” said Mrs Murphy.

The next morning, steaming mug in hand, she tapped on his door. Ever since that awful moment, never to be spoken of, when Alan was fifteen, Mrs Murphy had knocked before entering his bedroom. A few seconds delay was a small price for not suffering such a sight again.
He faced the wall. She placed the tea beside him, opened the blinds to let in a grim attempt at sunshine.        “Don’t be keeping your father waiting.”
       Mr Murphy was insisting Alan help him herd the cows. He could stay in the car and drive the livestock from behind, but they needed moving and the lad who usually helped was away. Her husband had proven resilient in refusing to ask a neighbour when he had an able-bodied son indoors. It infuriated her. Cattle terrified Alan, and while these days he might pretend otherwise, they all knew that.
       She had started with reason, progressed to begging, then followed through with a fervour that couldn’t help but bring up examples of her husband’s obstinacy from throughout their marriage. Mr Murphy did not budge. Alan nodded when told.
       Now he shuffled into the kitchen wearing a jacket from his school years, his shoulders lost within the once snug fit. She watched him reach for his cap from the hooks by the backdoor. The stretch of his arm flashed her back to when his voice wavered and spots littered his chin. She noticed the crumpled material at the base of his trousers. Her heartbeat quickened. “Come with me,” she said.
       He followed her to the sitting room where lines up the doorframe showed his height from two to twenty. A birthday ritual that only stopped when Mr Murphy dashed the marker from her hand claiming that was no way to judge a man’s growth. She understood – the son had outgrown the father.
But this morning when she lined Alan up he barely reached the mark of his fifteenth year. She inhaled sharply, “I’ll make us an appointment with Dr. Cahill.”
       “I’m fine.”
       She patted his shoulder, “Now don’t you worry about them cows. You stay in the car and let your father do the chasing.”

The memory from two decades ago would never leave her. Mart Day. She was talking to Mary at the back counter of Finnerty’s hardware store. Six-year old Alan fiddled with a new bag of marbles beside her.
Mrs Murphy, hair freshly permed, was passing on the salon news. She was asking what the world was coming to, what with Janet Coleman’s eldest behaving that way, when they heard shouting outside. And turned to see a bull bound through the shop’s open doorway.
       She grabbed Alan. Threw him behind her. The bull bucked and reared sending mops and buckets scattering before he broke into a panicked run. Time slowed as she watched the beast skid around the aisle corner, knock down the paint display, pound towards them. She roared. A great guttural roar that drowned the crashing of the pots and the screams of Mary Finnerty. Brandishing only a bright yellow umbrella, Mrs Murphy charged at the intruder.
       It was hard to know who was the most shocked. The bull stopped, kicked out his hind legs, pivoted with surprising grace. A display shelf teetered and fell, and a saucepan bounced from a beefy hindquarter as the animal galloped from the store.
       Alan, his marbles clutched by white-knuckled fists, stood frozen with owl eyes. Mrs Murphy dropped the umbrella and ran to squash him to her breast. There was a moment of silence broken only by the rolling of a tin.
       Mary Finnerty let out a long breath: “Well … I … never.”
       Mrs Murphy, still holding Alan tight, leaned over his shoulder and, much to her long lingering shame, vomited into her shopping basket.
       Excited townsfolk shepherded them into Honan’s Bar. Whiskey and crisps for the shock. Mrs Murphy held Alan close. “In Finnerty’s… Finnerty’s.”
       “It went berserk at the Mart,” said the post-mistress. “Tore through the fencing.”
       “Yes, but Finnerty’s.” Mrs Murphy’s voice grew shrill: “Finnerty’s!”
       Alan tried to extract himself to reach for a crisp. His mother’s grip locked tighter. “I’ll get that for you,” she said.

The doctor measured Alan’s blood pressure, took his temperature. He stuck a needle in his arm and filled three vials with blood. “We’ll let you know if anything shows up.”
       “I think he’s shrinking,” said Mrs Murphy.
       “Nothing to worry about,” said Dr Cahill. “A decent feed followed by a good night’s sleep and he’ll be grand.” It was the same advice he’d been giving her since Alan was born.

But despite the doctor’s expert opinion, Alan got smaller and smaller. Mrs Murphy started shopping for children’s clothes, putting cushions on seats. She shielded him from gossip by restricting his movements and preventing guests. No prying eyes came near her boy. When her husband tried to drag him from the house, she blocked the doorway and met his pleas with a violence so shocking he wept.
       Mr Murphy became a ghost in his own home. He retreated to the fields and the pub, his domestic existence reduced to a muddy footstep or an unwashed mug.
       Alan diminished with his world. He became the size of a foal, a fox, a cat, a squirrel. He stopped speaking, hardly moved, even his beloved rhubarb crumble failed to bring a smile. Mrs Murphy, ever conscious of his welfare, took to carrying him about in her apron pocket.
Soon he was no bigger than a goldfish. She kept him in a dollhouse where he wore the tiny garments she sewed, ate the thumbnail-sized steaks she fried. She brushed his hair with a toothbrush and bathed him in teacups.
       But still he kept shrinking. Her pocket seemed so big. There were so many possible dangers, so much potential for him to go astray.
       Mrs Murphy knelt before the statue on the fridge-top and begged for divine intervention. Her prayers were answered when inspiration struck. The nest-egg she’d been saving for Alan became a heart-shaped locket made of sparsely woven gold. She placed her son inside, tucked him between her breasts so he could hear her heartbeat, kept him as protected as he had been in the womb.
       And she savoured the satisfaction of her duty fulfilled.

Ava Sedgwick is an Australian writer living in Ireland. Her short stories have been published in Shooter Literary Magazine and Elegant Literature as well as short-listed in numerous literary competitions. The novel she is working on recently received an Honourable Mention in the 2024 Chapter One Prize. One day she’ll smoke that cigar.

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