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 matter 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.’