Friday, 9 September
‘Myself and Hugh,’ I say. ‘We’re taking a break.’
‘A city-with-fancy-food sort of a break?’ Maura narrows her eyes. ‘Or a Rihanna sort of a break? Well?’ She presses her case. ‘Is it the city-with-fancy-food break?’
‘No, it’s –’
‘The Rihanna kind? You’ve got to be joking me, because Rihanna is – what? – twenty-two and you’re –’
‘Not twenty-two.’ It’s imperative to shut her down before she utters my age. I don’t know how I got to be forty-four. Clearly I’d my eye off the ball but, a bit late to the party, I’m trying to airbrush away all references to it. It’s not just the fear-of-dying and, worse, the fear-of-becoming-jowly, it’s because I work in PR, a dynamic, youthful sector, which does not value the ‘less-young’ among us. I’ve bills to pay, I’m simply being practical here.
So I avoid any stating of my age, like, ever, in the hope that if no one says it, no one will know about it and I can stay age- free until the end of time. (My one regret is that I didn’t adopt this attitude when I was twenty-seven, but I knew nothing when I was twenty-seven.)
‘I’m your sister,’ Maura says. ‘I’m seven years older than you, so if I’m fifty-one –’
‘Of course,’ I say very, very quickly, talking over her, to shut her up. ‘Of course, of course, of course.’ Maura has never worried about getting old. For as long as I can remember she’s been ancient, more like Pop’s twin brother than his eldest child.
‘So it’s a “break” where Hugh can go off – where?’
‘South East Asia.’
‘Seriously? And then . . . what?’
‘He’ll come back.’
‘What if he doesn’t?’
It was the worst idea ever to admit my news to Maura, but she has a knack for getting the truth out of people. (We call her the Waterboarder.) She can always smell a story. She’s known something’s been up with me for the past five days – I thought I’d be okay if I kept ducking her calls but clearly I have a strong delusional streak because it was only a mat- ter of time before she showed up at my work and refused to leave until she knew everything.
‘Look, nothing is definite,’ I try. ‘He might not go.’ Because he might not.
‘You can’t let him,’ she announces. ‘Just tell him he can’t and let that be an end to it.’
If only it was that simple. She hadn’t read Hugh’s letter so she didn’t know the torment he was in. Letting him leave was my best chance of saving my marriage. Probably.
‘Is it to do with his dad dying?’
I nod. Hugh’s dad died eight months ago, and Hugh had shut down. ‘I thought that if enough time passed he’d be okay.’
‘But he isn’t. He’s the opposite of okay.’ She’s getting worked up. ‘This effing family. When will the drama stop? It’s like playing Whac-A-Mole.’ Maura’s rages are familiar and they no longer have the power to utterly terrify me. ‘No sooner is one of you toeing the line than another of you blows your life up. Why are you all such disasters?’ She means me and my siblings and, actually, we aren’t. Well, no more than any other family, which is to say, quite a lot, but so is everyone else’s, so we’re fairly normal, really.
‘It must be my fault,’ she declares. ‘Was I a bad role model?’
In actual fact she was the least bad role model that ever lived, but she’s upset me. Surely, all things considered, I’m deserving of sympathy.
‘You’re so cruel!’ she says. ‘You try being a little girl’ (she means herself) ‘whose mum is in hospital for months on end with tuberculosis at a time when tuberculosis wasn’t even a thing, when it was years out of date. A little girl who has four younger brothers and sisters, who won’t stop crying, and a big, cold house, which is falling to bits, and a dad who can’t cope. Yes, I have an over-developed sense of responsibility but . . .’
I know the speech and could do a word-perfect recitation, but closing her down when she’s in full flow is next to impossible. (My siblings and I like to joke that her husband TPB – The Poor Bastard – developed spontaneous mutism shortly after their wedding and that no one has heard him speak for the past twenty-one years. We insist that the last words he’d ever been heard saying – in tones of great doubt – were ‘I do . . . ?’)
‘What’s going on?’ I ask, baffled by her antipathy. ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’
‘Yet,’ she says. ‘Yet!’ ‘What are you saying?’
She seems surprised. ‘If your husband is “on a break” from your marriage’ – she does the quotation marks with her fingers – ‘then aren’t you’ – more quotation marks – ‘“on a break” too?’
It takes a few moments for her words to sink in. Then, to my great surprise, something stirs in me, something hopeful that, after the last five horrible days, feels like the sweetest relief. In a small recess of my soul a tiny pilot light sparks into life.
Slowly, I say, ‘Seeing as you put it like that, well, I suppose I am.’
Now that she’s got what she came for, Maura gathers up her stuff, a sturdy brown briefcase and a waterproof jacket.
‘Please, Maura,’ I say fiercely. ‘You are not to tell the others.’
‘But they’re your family!’ How has she managed to make this sound like a curse? ‘And Hugh hasn’t been coming for the Friday dinners for ages. They know something’s wrong.’
‘I’m serious, Maura. The girls don’t know yet and they can’t find out from Chinese whispers.’ I pause. Are we allowed to say ‘Chinese whispers’, these days? Best not to take chances. ‘They can’t find out from stray gossip.’ Not as colourful, but it would have to do.
‘Have you not even told Derry?’ Maura sounds surprised.
Derry is our other sister and, at just fifteen months older than me, we’re close.
‘Look, it may not actually happen. He mightn’t go.’
For the first time, compassion appears on her face. ‘You’re in denial.’
‘I’m in something,’ I admit. ‘Shock, I think.’ But there’s also shame, fear, sorrow, guilt and, yes, denial, in the mix, everything tangled together in one horrible snarl-up.
‘Are you still okay to do the dinner tonight?’
‘Yep.’ Friday dinner at Mum and Pop’s house is a tradition that has endured for at least a decade. Mum isn’t hardy enough to cater every week for the numbers who turn up – my sib- lings, their children, their partners and their ex-partners (oh, yes, very modern, we are) – so the catering rotates week by week. ‘Any idea how many are coming tonight?’ I ask.
There is such a clatter of O’Connells that it’s impossible to ever establish an exact number for catering purposes. Every Friday texts zip to and fro, cancelling and confirming, adding and subtracting, and the one number you can be sure it won’t be is the number you think it is. But whatever the headcount, it’s best to cater for a multitude. God forbid that they run out of food on your watch: you’ll never be let forget it.
‘Me,’ Maura says, listing on her fingers. ‘You. Not Hugh, obviously.’
A gentle knock on the door interrupts us. Thamy’s head appears. ‘Incoming in five,’ she says.
‘You’ve to go,’ I say to Maura. ‘I’ve a meeting.’
‘On a Friday afternoon?’ Maura’s antennae are quivering. ‘Who has a meeting on a Friday afternoon? Someone’s in trouble, right?’
‘Please,’ I say. ‘Out.’
Hatch, the tiny agency that I’m one-third of, does all kinds of PR, including Image Management. We rehabilitate politicians, sports-people, actors – public fi of one sort or another who’ve been publicly shamed. It used to be all about sex scandals but, these days, the opportunities to disgrace yourself have expanded – accusations of racism – that’s a big one –- which will, quite rightly, lose you your job. Sexism, ageism and size-ism are all dicey, as is bullying, stealing small objects, such as Putin’s pen, or parking in a disabled spot when you’re not disabled.
Of course, the methods of public shaming have also changed: back in the day, badzers lived in terror of the front page of a Sunday tabloid. But because in today’s world everything is caught on phones, the fear is of going viral.
‘Any freebies?’ Maura asks, as Thamy and I hustle her through the main office and towards the exit.
‘Give her some incontinence pants,’ I tell Thamy. EverDry is one of our biggest clients and, grim as it sounds, inconti- nence is a huge growth area.
‘Ah, here!’ Maura says. ‘I’m far from incontinent. Is there no chocolate? Oh, hi, Alastair . . .’
Alastair has just got in from London, so he’s looking particularly impressive in his high-end suit and crisp white shirt. He fixes Maura with his silvery eyes, then slowly unleashes The Smile. He is pathetic. ‘Hi, Maura,’ he says, his voice low and intimate.
‘Hi,’ she squeaks, a flush roaring up from her neck.
‘Chocolate?’ Alastair says. ‘Hold on . . .’
Hatch represent an artisanal chocolate-maker, which is a torment because samples are sent to the office and sometimes it’s just too exhausting to resist them.
Alastair grabs a box of chocolates from the cupboard, then a couple of body scrubs made from turf (I know). As a small gesture of defiance, I add a pack of incontinence pants to the pile.
Thamy shepherds my sister towards the stairs so she won’t bump into Mrs EverDry coming up in the lift. Thamy is a godsend – originally from Brazil, she’s our Reception, Invoicing and Goods Inward departments, all in one charm- ing package. She can persuade the most reluctant of debtors to cough up, is never huff about making coffee and, unlike all of her predecessors, isn’t a half-wit. Far from it. (I’m wor- ried now about having used the word ‘half-wit’ – people have been Twitter-shamed for less. Rehabilitating disgraced people makes you very cognizant of these things.)
Alastair and I make our way to the small conference room, the room in which Maura has just extracted my sad secret from me. (The Hatch premises are tiny because tiny is all we can afford. Mind you, I work from London two days a week, where we can’t afford any office space.)
There’s no time to brush my hair so I ask Alastair, ‘Do I look okay?’
When people hear I work in public relations, they can barely hide their surprise. Women PRs are usually tall, bone- thin, blonde and aloof; they wear tight white skirt suits that hug their cellulite-free flanks; their smiles are icy and their auras are positively glacial. Hamstrung as I am with shortness and a tendency to roundness, which I need to watch like a hawk, I certainly don’t look the part. It’s just as well I’m good at my job.
‘Dishevelled can be charming.’ Alastair says. ‘Makes you seem likeable. But . . .’ he begins to straighten my collar ‘. . . maybe today a little too messy?’
I move his hand away. He’s far too free and easy when it comes to touching women. Nevertheless my dress is crumpled and my internal unravelling can’t start manifesting in my appearance. My mind races through possible ways to upgrade my look. Ironing my work clothes: that would be a good, solid start.
With a stab of wild hope, I wonder about doing something magical with my hair. Maybe cut six inches off it? But that would be tantamount to self-harm – my hair is nothing but good to me. A little needy, perhaps, and, according to magazine articles, far too long for a woman in her forties, but it’s the most glamorous thing I possess.
How about the colour? Is it finally time to move on from dark brown and embrace a more age-appropriate lighter hue?
My hairdresser had given me the well-worn lecture about how skin tones fade as a woman ages. ‘Keep dyeing your hair this dark,’ he’d said, ‘and you’ll look like you’ve been embalmed.’
‘I know what “they” say,’ I’d said, ‘I do, Lovatt. But in this instance “they” are wrong. I’m an exception. Or a freak, if you prefer.’
He didn’t prefer. His mouth tightened mutinously and he dried my roots matron-bouffy as punishment.
‘Doing anything nice for the weekend?’ Alastair asks.
I think about Hugh’s plans to run away. About the need to tell the girls. About this being the end of my life as I know it. I shrug. ‘Nothing much. You?’
‘A course.’ He looks a little abashed.
‘Another of your Learn the Secret to Happiness in Forty- eight Hours things? Alastair,’ I say helplessly, ‘you’re looking for something that doesn’t exist.’
He seems to devote a weekend a month to Healing the Wounds of Childhood, or Emptiness in the Age of Plenty, or similar, but so far none of them has worked.
‘Here’s the secret to happiness,’ I say. ‘Drink as heavily as you can get away with. Buy stuff. And, if all else fails, spend three days in bed eating doughnuts. How do you think the rest of us manage?’
Before Alastair can defend himself, Tim, the third partner in Hatch, comes in.
All three of us – Tim, Alastair and I – used to work together in a big Irish PR agency, but about five years ago we got laid off As part of his relentless quest, Alastair went to an ashram in India, which he was asked to leave because he wouldn’t stop shagging yoga-bunny acolytes. I spent a few grim years in the freelancing wilderness, and Tim went back to college and qualified as an accountant. This tells you all you need to know about the three diff energies that Alastair, Tim and I bring to the table.
We set up our little agency about two and a half years ago and we lurch from month to month, wondering if we’ll still be operational in thirty days’ time. It’s an anxious way to live. So anxious that I have chronic gastritis and one of my main food groups is Zantac. My (twelve-year-old) GP told me to excise all stress and I’d nodded obediently but in my head I was saying, all sarcastic-like, ‘You think?’ Then she told me to lose a couple of pounds and I wanted to weep: that weight was a by-product of giving up cigarettes. It made me consider just doing all the bad stuff and dying an early death but at least I’d have enjoyed my life.
And here comes Mrs EverDry, stout and scary in her tailored dress, and we’re all on our feet, warmly welcoming her. Maura had it wrong when she deduced that a Friday- afternoon meeting indicated a crisis: it’s when Mrs EverDry likes to receive her monthly progress report. She lives in some rural opposite-of-idyll and it suits her to come to Dublin on a weekend ‘for the shops’.
‘You.’ She points at me.
Shite. What have I done? Or not done?
‘I hear you’re Neeve Aldin’s mother,’ she says. ‘Neeve Aldin of Bitch, Please fame?’
‘Oh? Ah. Yes!’
‘I watch her make-up vlogs with my fourteen-year-old.
She’s gas craic, makes us both laugh.’ ‘Well . . . ah . . . great.’
‘Mind you, I’m nearly in the poorhouse from having to buy the stuff she pushes. You wouldn’t ask her to showcase some cheaper brands?’
‘I can try!’ There’s not an earthly that Neeve would listen to me.
‘How come she has a different surname to you?’
‘She’s from my first marriage. Goes by her dad’s name.’
‘That’s that mystery cleared up. Let’s get started.’
Off we go and Mrs EverDry is pleased with some of our progress – we got a mention on Coronation Street. ‘But I’ve decided that we need an ambassador,’ she says.
Her words fall into stunned silence. ‘The public face of the brand.’
We know what an ambassador is, we just don’t know how to tell her she’s totally delusional.
‘Interesting . . .’ I’m playing for time.
‘Don’t you “interesting” me,’ she says.
Alastair’s got to be the one to neutralize this – she loves him. ‘Mrs Mullen,’ he says gently. ‘It won’t be easy to find someone willing to publicly admit to incontinence.’
‘We just need one person,’ she says. ‘Then everyone will be at it.’
And she’s right. It’s not so long since having cancer was a secret, or when no one would own up to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
‘Everyone’s incontinent!’ Mrs EverDry declares. She looks at Alastair, and her tone softens. ‘Well, maybe not you. You’re perfect.’
‘I have more things wrong with me than you could ever imagine.’ Alastair thinks he’s being charming but I agree with him.
Mrs EverDry studies Tim. ‘I’d say you aren’t incontinent either.’
‘I’m too young,’ Tim says.
‘And too uptight.’
We all snort with unexpected laughter. Mrs EverDry is our most important client, but you couldn’t help liking her.
Now she turns her gaze on me. ‘I couldn’t claim incontinence,’ I say apologetically, ‘but my bladder certainly isn’t what it was.’
‘Maybe not everyone’s incontinent yet ,’ Mrs EverDry concedes. ‘But soon they will be. Because we’re all living too long.’
Which is exactly the point that Hugh had been trying to make when he broke his terrible news to me. The tiny pilot light of hope that Maura’s visit had lit is abruptly extinguished and, once again, I’m sad and scared.