Ma by Risa Peris (Flash Fiction)

I kept scratching at the wound with a scaly scab. Ma kept yelling at me not to scratch.

“It’ll leave a scar,” Ma exclaimed. I didn’t care, it fucking itched. Some idiot at the bar, drunk on Guinness and scotch, had stabbed me with a fork when I had refused to serve him another drink. The fork belonged to Michael, who had laid it down to rest his weary arm from shoveling fish pie into his gullet and downing gulps of beer.

I pulled the fork out. I didn’t scream or cry. I wrapped a bar towel around the wound and then got Michael another fork as the drunken eejit was hauled out by the police. I guess someone had called the shits long before I was stabbed.
My bar, Odyssey, was slightly north of Belfast. Mostly Catholics come here, but we had Protestants as well. It was a local place to escape your wife, your job, your life. Drink to oblivion. That was my motto. Unless you stab me with a fork.

I was Ma’s only daughter. I had two brothers – one in Boston and one in London. Ma was only proud of the one in Boston. I wasn’t sure if Ma was proud of me; I only knew that she was grateful that I stayed in Northern Ireland to keep her company. She tended to my wound like a proper nurse. Dabbing it, anti-bacterial whatever, tight dressing. I flinched when she splashed alcohol on it.

“Oh, stop you’re complaining. That kind of pain is nothing.” Ma kept unraveling the gauze and ignoring the expression on my face. Pain mixed with love. That’s the face I had with David. My dead husband who died taking down some sex trafficker. It’s what I was told. He had been an officer of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We had this weird relationship; he would inflict wounds on me and I would enjoy it. It was nothing serious. I never had to go to the hospital, but I did get bruises, scratches, and all kinds of red marks. It worked for us. I would piss him off and he would act like he was about to kill me, except he just knocked me around and then we had sex. Losing him was like losing a foot. I knew I wouldn’t have that kind of relationship ever again, I was a lost dog who couldn’t find the scent home. I just kept on, tending the bar, taking care of Ma. One boring day became another boring day. On and on. I needed something; I wasn’t sure what.

The bad bloke came in right after President Biden left for Ireland. There was some kind of press photo op with Biden and Prime Minister Sunak. It was just Biden and Sunak smiling, not even shaking hands, not even saying anything important. Then Biden took off for Ireland where he had roots. My roots were here. Belfast. The Church. Ma. All I know is that the bloke came in when the news said they had discovered pipe bombs in a local cemetery in Belfast.

“Fuck,” I said as I watched one of the TVs.

“Where’s my beer?” yelled Seamus who had red cheeks and slightly jaundiced eyes.

“I’m getting it. I’m getting it.” I shuffled over to Seamus and that’s when I noticed him. He was not a regular. He ordered whiskey. Straight. I served him with a smile but then busied myself with other things. No one in the pub would look at him. Not straight on. He had the scent of menace and danger. He was making Seamus jumpy. He looked like he was in his forties, muscular, with a hard look. He was unsettling and completely forgettable. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark clothes. He was nothing and something. He mostly stared and tapped at his phone. I glanced a few times at him. In passing. He was playing chess. I never asked him questions. He was slow to drink and slow to order.
He started coming in every night for eight nights. I didn’t say much to him. Gave him drinks, looked at his face to understand why he was bothering me. He wasn’t rude. He was relaxed and tense as a spring at the same time.

“Whiskey,” he said.

“How…”

“Straight.” Not even a smile. I’d get him the drink and then spend time shooting the shit with my other regulars.
The eighth night Ma came in.

“Alison, I brought you a sandwich for your dinner. I have proper roast and potatoes at home. You can eat it when you’re done here.” Ma slid a paper sack across the bar.

“Ma, the bar has food.”

“It does. But not proper.” Ma looked proud.

“Fish and chips is proper.” I didn’t like her showing up at the bar. Usually, she avoided it. Hated the name. Odyssey.
“Jesus…why not something Irish?”

“I don’t care. The Odyssey is about an adventure and this bar is my adventure.”

“Didn’t it take that man ten years or more to get home?”

“Odysseus? Yeah, it took him some time to get home, but it was a fantastic journey. Harrowing and hilarious. Maybe not hilarious. It takes time to reach a destination, so I might as well enjoy the journey.”

“You’ve enjoyed the bar? Even with your husband’s death?”

“Yeah.” I wasn’t sure what else to say. “I’m open to deepening adventures.”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

I noticed the bloke staring at Ma. Carefully. Open eyes. Ma looked to her left, their eyes locked for a moment. She looked nervous, didn’t smile, then headed out into the brisk wind.

My Ma was in her sixties. She had raven hair with chunks of gray, a network of wrinkles around her eyes, and two hard lines, like brackets, around her mouth. My Ma was a stunner in her day, and if you stared at her for a minute, her blue eyes became luminous, and her youthful beauty began to bloom again.

Ma left, and the bloke left maybe twenty seconds later. I didn’t think anything of it. I was glad the bloke was gone and the bar became more boisterous without the weight of him. Seamus had his fill, and his eyes seemed to become more yellow, I talked Michael into returning to his wife with apologies, Nigel I pushed out with my boot because he was getting handsy, I got Anne to stop playing Abba songs and fueled her heartbreak with gin. On and on. The usual. I cleaned up the mess with Liam, my nineteen-year-old cook, who smoked weed on his breaks.
I went home around midnight. It was a ten-minute walk from the bar. It was a two-story home that needed a new roof and a paint job. David had bought it for me, a mortgage weighing on us through our matrimonial chaos. It was paid off when he died. Insurance. Ma slept in the bedroom next to me. We had a routine. Comfortable, loving. There was no issue between us, except I was lonely and restless and unsure what to do. Alcohol wasn’t drowning anything.

The door was ajar when I arrived. “Ma,” I called out. The house was silent. It didn’t even creak or groan like old houses do. It was dark and cold, like a tomb. “Ma,” I called out again. “What about the proper dinner?” I was joking. It was my reaction to being scared. I knew something wasn’t right.

I walked into the kitchen, flicked on the light, and screamed. Ma was tied to a chair. Her neck was sliced, and flopped backwards. There was a gag in her mouth – a dish towel dotted with blue chickens protruded like an iceberg. Her fingers were bloody, and I could see that her fingernails were gone.

“I’ve been looking for your Ma.” The bloke emerged from the shadows. I couldn’t move. I was a block of ice. The bloke smiled. “I was ordered to kill her. Do you know who your Ma is? Fucking bitch planted a bomb for the IRA back in the day. Killed my boss’s Da. Scores have to be settled. Yeah?” His voice sounded strangely friendly.
I shook my head. It was crazy. My Ma in the IRA. She was a dutiful housewife who went to church and confessed every week. The bloke sensed the confusion.

“It was a fucking tangled mess back then. Yeah?” The time before the Good Friday Agreement.

“Yeah. It was fucking crazy.”

I ran. Out the door and down the quiet, somber street. As I ran, I knew they would track me down and kill me. I was a witness. I had seen the bad bloke. I ran toward my uncle Brian’s home. He had a blotched past. Time at the Maze with the political heavies and an abbreviated hunger strike. No one said IRA. Cursed letters. But we knew. He’d know what to do. Maybe I would become him or my Ma. That’s how violence works. My feet hurt pounding on the street as I was scared and thinking. That’s how violence works. It enters your life; you are witness, and then you become violent, trying to beat the beast, trying to survive. You become the violence that wrecked you. The past haunts the present and steals the future. Ma stole my life the moment she planted a bomb. The horror that was done to her. Exhausted from running, I stopped to heave onto a dead lawn. I wiped my face with the back of my hand. The scab from the fork injury came off. Blood with a clear wound it would need to heal like my life, my family, my country.

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