The Witch Sniffer
The welfare man’s a sleveen of a witch sniffer. I must smell
right if I’ve any chance of getting through the inquisition
for a School Clothing, Footwear and Book Allowance.
You’re not going up to that place smelling of petunia oils
and looking like Janis Joplin off out to the gig at Woodstock.
Ma smears lemon rind and juice on me wrists and sprinkles
drops of vanilla essence all over me second-best dress and jacket.
The witch sniffer has a grá for girls who did little but bake and skivvy.
Ma removes me bangles, beads, bauble earrings and granny’s brooch.
The heart of the Claddagh ring stares up at me in shock.
She whips off the PLO scarf, zips me jacket, all the way, to the neck
and coils up me tailing-long red hair under a grey woollen hat.
Ma flattens it down, fits the cap snug. She bites at the fat of her lip:
don’t look him in the eye, don’t let that witch sniffer come near you.
The odd time there’s a sighting of Mrs. M, head down,
scrubbing out their front porch with a hard bristle brush.
Crimson knuckled, elbow grease, arms reach, going ninety.
A bucket of rinse water. She starts off again. Back into it.
You wonder about the invisible dirt plaguing her doorstep.
One Saturday you see her washing windows. Spy her pale
pink basin of sudsy water and twists of scrunched newspapers
from a hideout behind their garden wall. She says nothing.
Her eyes swollen purple, a gashed brow. Her hands shake.
You leg it, race the street shadows to your front gate,
clutch cold wrought iron in your fists. Wish you could ice
her black eye, Dettol and plaster that gash. Mrs. M needs
to see the state of your gaff: its manky porch and pawed windows.
She should have a quiet word with your Ma and her sisters.
This poem first appeared in The Children of the Nation: Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland edited and introduced by Jenny Farrell (Culture Matters, 2019)
Rachel Hegarty © 2019