It was the laugh that did it.
It made the hairs prickle on the back of my neck and told my seven-year-old spidey-senses something wasn’t right. I’d hear it so often growing up that eventually just the first few jarring notes were all it took to trigger a Pavlovian unease deep within me. It was a clear signal things were headed in a bad direction. It was over-loud and, while it looked and sounded like laughter, there was a hollowness behind it like a concealed room. My mother called it a cackle. It wasn’t contagious like genuine merriment, and I knew, on some inexplicable primal level, it was duplicitous.
It was lunchtime.
On the farm our main meal is in the middle of the day, hard physical labour demands substantial re-fuelling the likes of which a sandwich or plate of cold-cuts can’t deliver. The kitchen is warm and welcoming; the stove, nestled in her alcove gently warming the bottoms of the two huge steel kettles that live on her hotplate, circulates the aroma of a hearty hot meal like a binding promise. I eye the door of the oven darkly – a memory of my mother’s explosive attempt at rice pudding is still vivid, that shocking BANG mid-meal the siren of a surprise gone wrong. I needn’t have worried; today’s meal would be marked by an outburst of a different nature.
It was like any other day.
Dragging my chair out I scramble into my place, beside my father at the rectangular kitchen table. My fingertips roam the pine tabletop, braille-reading the scarred yellow surface while I wait for my plate to be put in front of me. The scent of the outdoors still clings to my father’s overalls and makes me eager for the meal to be over so I can run back out and play. I swing my legs impatiently beneath the table. My mother lays our plates before us and sits down opposite me to eat. Quiet ensues as we blunt our hunger. Dreamily, I watch condensation fog the inside of the window-pane behind her as I chew and swallow without tasting. I’m thinking of the mound up by the paddock I‘ve just discovered, and visualizing the path I’ll take to scale it. The promise of exploration leaves me oblivious to my surroundings until loud laughter yanks me back to the table. I thought I’d missed a joke but the dialogue seems at odds with the levity.
It came out of the blue.
In a voice oddly high-pitched and mirthless, my father smilingly cajoles my mother to confess to poisoning his food.
“Why dontchuh just admit it?” he wheedles, his forced geniality incongruent with the line of questioning. Every utterance is abnormally loud, the silences in between quiet like a fight.
“I know ye’ve put something in it. Just tell me.” Hard eyes beneath a juggernaut brow bore into hers. Then, more forcefully, “What the divil didja put in it?”
It was a watershed moment.
As I waited for the punch line that was never going to come something took over me. I was suddenly viscerally aware I was sitting next to a man I didn’t know. I didn’t need to look at him to know a stranger had usurped his body. Intuitively I keep still, gaze fixed on my plate; an animal instinct tells me it’s best to be invisible. I can tell his manner is contrived – a saccharine coating intended to mask something sinister, like the banana-flavoured medicine with the nasty aftertaste I had when I got chickenpox.
Somehow my mother keeps her tone light – and this I don’t understand either, won’t her light-lipped denials make him worse? She continues insisting she has no idea what he’s talking about but the atmosphere is uncomfortable, even to a child – the air heavy with tension the way it is when a thunderstorm’s coming. I wish there was a plug I could pull to safeguard us all from the repressed energy swirling the room, the way we unplug the TV during a storm. I’m glad when the meal is over and I can run back outside to safety and simplicity, heart thudding the way it does when you know you’ve had a narrow escape, when you’ve been too close to something you weren’t supposed to see. I play on the mound all afternoon, forgetting everything until it grows dark and I have no choice but to go back inside for tea. I didn’t know it then, but I’d had my first brush with mental illness.
This is the start of how it all ends.
Incidents like this are snapshots in a documentary of the disintegration of my world. Like the day the shotguns disappeared from the cloakroom. One minute they were where they’d always been, muzzles propped against the wall, neatly in line behind the mismatched wellington boots, the next – gone. They were the first signs that the things I thought solid and unchanging in my world weren’t immutable.
My mother told me years later of the events that prompted her to hand them in to the Garda for safekeeping. The strange goings-on logged by my child’s radar were just the tip of the iceberg, but it would be a long time before the term Manic Depression was used to explain them to me.