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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

An Affair with My Mother

A Story of Adoption, Secrecy and Love
Caitríona Palmer
Penguin Ireland


From the Prologue

It's hard to know what to wear when you're meeting your mother for the first time.

After some deliberation I chose dark denim trousers, a fitted black jacket and low black heels, with minimal make­up and simple jewellery. Reviewing myself in the mirror that Saturday morning, I felt satisfied. Ready for business, my reflection said. Ready for anything.

My adoptive father — the man I've always known simply as Dad — offered to drive me into town. I wanted time alone on the train to listen to my Walkman and prepare, but a heavy rain started to fall and so I relented. By the time we pulled up outside Number 82, Haddington Road, a Georgian house near the Grand Canal, I was sweating and felt nauseous.

Dad, never big on displays of emotion, patted me gently on the hand.

‘I can wait here if you'd like,' he said softly. 'No problem at all.'

You're fine, Dad,' I said, reaching over to kiss him gently on the cheek, 'you head off. I'll be OK.'

Dad waited, his yellow hazard lights flashing, as I climbed the granite steps towards the door. As the door opened, I turned and bent down to see his face as he drove off. Our eyes met and he waved. I had never loved him more than I did in that moment. At the same time, I felt like a traitor. The worst daughter in the world.

Catherine, the social worker assigned to my case, wel­comed me and led me to her office upstairs. It appeared that I was the first to arrive. We sat and made small talk over steaming mugs of milky tea. A plate of plain biscuits lay on the table in front of me, but one glance in their direction made my stomach lurch. I tried to focus on what Catherine was saying while suppressing the urge to vomit and looking around the room for the nearest wastebasket.

Outside I heard the slam of a car door, then footsteps. The doorbell rang. Snatches of hushed conversation drifted upwards from the hallway. Catherine smiled kindly, patted me on the arm and left the room. Showtime, I thought to myself. I sat alone, staring at the crucifix hanging on the opposite wall and wondering if I could still make it to the bathroom.

I wanted my mother — and not the one that I was about to meet. I had left Mam an hour earlier, enveloped in the warmth of her kitchen in north Dublin, standing over the electric cooker immersed in her Saturday ritual of making vegetable soup and soda bread. I wanted to tell her that I was sorry, that this was all a big mistake, a foolish fumble at finding my identity that had got out of control. I wanted things to be normal again.

But an echo of footsteps in the corridor told me it was too late. I looked down at my feet and forced a smile. Cath­erine stepped in, followed by a woman wearing an oversized fake-fur coat. Seeing me, the woman put her hands to her face and gasped. She rushed towards me, the metallic bangles she was wearing on her long arms clashing and clanging as she reached out. She smelt of cheap perfume and wore too much blush. She grabbed me, pulling me to her, sobbing. I hugged her, patting her on the back, wishing she would let me go.

'Caitriona, Caitriona, Caitriona,' she said, repeating my name over and over, sobbing.

I said nothing. I felt nothing.

Til leave you both to it then,' I heard Catherine say.

'Don't go,' I wanted to scream at her. 'Please don't go. Stay. Stay here with me, please. Don't leave me alone with this woman.'