CHANGING ROOMS
                                                                                         Have I told you how I
                                                                                         was the last in the class
                                                                                         to get one; how I was teased
                                                                                         for a year; how I knew
                                                                                         when I got one the teasing
                                                                                         would only get worse;
                                                                                         how I longed for and dreaded
                                                                                         it in equal measure.
                                                                                         My mother’s whispered lie
                                                                                         she needs                    a bra;
                                                                                         the Misses O’Reilly’s dextrous eyes
                                                                                         sizing me up:
                                                                                         30 their damning verdict
                                                                                         A                                     A
                                                                                         From under the counter
                                                                                         little by little
                                                                                         five plain boxes
                                                                                         stacked and floating
                                                                                         flat on my upturned palms.
                                                                                         Our procession facing
                                                                                         the shuttered changing
                                                                                         room; my mother & Miss O’Reilly
                                                                                         hovering; the prickle of white
                                                                                         padded nylon, the deep pink rose
                                                                                         sewn on where the cleavage
                                                                                         should be. A pink fog
                                                                                         closing in, its crimson pall.
                                                                                         And did I ever tell you about my friend
                                                                                         who, furnished with a bra,
                                                                                         in another town,
                                                                                         in a family of sisters,
                                                                                         never having seen one on the line,
                                                                                         wore her new bra for months
                                                                                         before her mother spotted it,
                                                                                         black on the bedroom floor?
                                                                                         Her mother, it transpired,
                                                                                         hung them at the back
                                                                                         of the airing cupboard.
                                                                                         The same friend’s sister,
                                                                                         kissing a boy
                                                                                         and feeling his hand
                                                                                         flutter at her chest,
                                                                                         turns on the light
                                                                                         and puts her glasses on
                                                                                         to help him find
                                                                                         the thing he has mislaid.
                                                                                         My sister, her first son
                                                                                         at her breast, felt her shirt sodden
                                                                                         under one arm,
                                                                                         how she balked at the prospect
                                                                                         of underarm milk: an aberrant
                                                                                         nipple, common enough,
                                                                                         covert until called upon,
                                                                                         there in the bathroom mirror
                                                                                         true to type.
                                                                                         And my friend’s South American friend
                                                                                         who adopted a child
                                                                                         and bottle-fed
                                                                                         using a tube
                                                                                         which was fixed
                                                                                         to her nipple?
                                                                                         How after a couple of weeks
                                                                                         her milk came in.
                                                                                         (And how her breasts held sway
                                                                                         in the bedroom
                                                                                         hosing her husband
                                                                                         drenching the marriage bed.)
                                                                                         My mother’s mother
                                                                                         made a pact with cancer,
                                                                                         whose chop and change concession
                                                                                         cost her breast, returned
                                                                                         to the consulting room
                                                                                         and gravely pressed the surgeon –
                                                                                         lopsidedness felt loathsome –
                                                                                         to remove its blameless fellow;
                                                                                         how gamely he’d obliged.
                                                                                         And how she lived well
                                                                                         past her ninetieth year,
                                                                                         robust of bra
                                                                                         and girdled
                                                                                         to the last.

                                                                                         Too many books spoil the
                                                                                         my mother her head in a cliff
                                                                                         again, searching for gannets’ eggs
                                                                                         to assemble the blackcurrant soufflé
                                                                                         she swears had been served at her wedding,
                                                                                         my father making a show of licking the cream,
                                                                                         his glee as he needled the priest
                                                                                         with talk of their passionate life.
                                                                                         But you, she cried, with your head in a book
                                                                                         Look out or you’ll scramble your eggs.



Today my teenage godson stretched cling-film over the toilet bowl to repay the mother who had pissed him off. He quickly applies the film and puts the lid back down. The ends he smoothes along the toilet’s neck. My friend, his mother, cops on right away. (He never puts the seat down; besides, the boy’s ham-fisted, and a wrinkle in the skin has caught the light.) She peels the  film  off  but  doesn’t  say. She finds that she no longer needs, no longer wants, to go.

My friend talks more than me; she always has. She never touches her coffee till several minutes after I’ve drained my cup. She claims to like the skin. She eases it back with the back of her spoon and sprinkles sugar in. A skin has formed across the eager space I cleared for you. While I have been distracted, the cup has somehow filled itself again.



When perfect strangers call her love she can feel homicidal. In the taxi Mary Madden wrings her fingers. She tells herself, as she’s learned to do, that maybe love’s their only word for woman.
When the lady with the buggy in the mirrored hall in Wellworths called her lady as in ‘give the lady your money pet,’ she looked behind and bumped against her gaping too-young self.
When squaddies came for Yorkie bars and asked what time d’you finish love? she’d duck and get the married girls to serve them. One boy’d a lovely smile made Mary blush; he’d come most days and mooch around the aisles. The only girls she’d seen who went with soldiers soon had prams, and Catholic girls could turn up tarred and feathered. She thought of that boy every single night.
When Tommy Curran babysat she often thought of genies. He’d call her my wee lady while he rubbed her. Mary’d shut her eyes and do her six-times tables.
When a boyfriend in her twenties called her woman, (he used it interchangeably with wench) as in ‘bring me my breakfast woman,’ ‘kiss me wench,’ or ‘woman you taste so fine do you fancy a shag?’ she laughed, as she was supposed to, and acquiesced.
When im-ur-man at texted hey gurl ur luvly id luv too fuck ur brainz out, she arranged to meet him out at Helen’s Bay. Mary Madden booked a taxi. It was April the first 2010, her fifty-second birthday.  She packed a picnic, whiskey and a knife.


Paula Cunningham

Paula Cunningham lives in Belfast. She works part-time as a dentist. Her chapbook A Dog Called Chance was published by Smith/Doorstop in 1999. She has also written drama and short fiction. A short story appeared in Faber’s Best New Irish Short Stories 2004-2005. In 2011 she won the Hippocrates Poetry Prize; she placed third in the Ballymaloe International Poetry Competition in 2013. She currently holds an award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Her poetry collection Heimlich’s Manoeuvre is due from Smith/Doorstop this summer.

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