When they start the announcements to say the plane is landing, thank you for flying with us, put your seatbelt on and don’t be wandering about, trying to use the toilet, all the rest of it, I press my forehead against the window.
A cloud stretches across the sky. Bright white like hotel sheets. Unbroken, so I can’t see anything below. The airport. Or where the sea turns into the Lagan. Farmhouses and their neat green fields. Wild patches of forest. The navy ikea warehouse. The mountains. My da, recovering from his operation.
When he called on Tuesday evening, drunk, and asked me back, the first thought I had was about the woman he’d been seeing. I vaguely knew she was younger and they’d met in a pub. I asked could she not help and he paused. Then he said he thought she’d moved back to Lisburn. I said had she moved back or did he think she had. He said he didn’t know.
No. I said. You can’t not know. She’s either living with you or she’s not.
Right. He said. Right. Yes. No. No she’s not.
I could have hung up the phone then and there. It wasn’t as if it had a whole lot to do with me, really. And it wasn’t even clear what he was asking me for. To come back and stay for a few weeks. To do what? I’m no nurse. And he’s hardly bedbound, taking his food through a straw.
I wondered if there was someone else I could get in the mix. We could share, or ideally they could go instead of me. If not that woman he had on the go, maybe my sister? My mum? Ha! I raised my eyebrows there, just thinking about that one. Not a chance.
Right, how long would you be needing me back? I said. It might be tricky, with work. You know. Silence. Then he said if I could come in the next few days and stay over the coming weekend, maybe the one after too, he would appreciate it. I’d be grateful, son. He said. My lips stretched into a line. Two weeks he’s wanting. Two weeks?
Right. I said. Right. But then I remembered the Saturday I had coming up. Kimberly’s school friend Sophia’s wedding, at a big country house in Buckinghamshire. All Kimberly’s school girlies drunk on prosecco, drinking from three in the afternoon, competitively not eating anything. There’d be tears from one of them at some point, quite possibly Kimberly. And no free bar, so I’d have to buy rounds of cocktails and shots and God knows what to keep up with the other boyfriends and husbands. When I’d asked would there be a free bar, months ago, Kimberly called me cheap and then selfish, and then we were arguing and she was crying and locking herself in the toilet. Later she shook her head while she said I had no ambition in the voice I hear her use on work video calls. It was one of those arguments where it becomes about every argument you’ve ever had, or wanted to have, but held back.
Compared to all that, how bad could my da’s really be? I could head down over the weekend, go out for a few drinks with the boys, see if Ciara’s about, help him tidy up, take my work laptop to a cafe during the week, back on the Friday. Worst case the Sunday. No bother.
Right, you know what. I said to my da. I think work will be fine with it. I’ll say it’s an emergency or whatever. I’ll book a flight for Friday evening then, or Saturday morning.
Thank you, son. He said.
But now it’s Saturday, late morning, and I’m walking through the airport, past the Tayto welcome sign and out to the taxi bay, and I’m getting these texts from him, every few minutes, saying he’ll collect me, then that he can’t because there’s a problem with the car, then that he’ll order a taxi, and next is he can’t order one but if I order he’ll pay, and I’m in the mind to block his number and book on the next flight back.
I stand blinking in the sun, my T-shirt sticking to my back, faffing around with the taxi app.
When we pull into his street he’s standing in the doorway, waving. He looks small and his hair is grey. He hasn’t lost his looks though, he has a kind of chiselled thing going on. He doesn’t look infirm; I can’t see any crutches.
Right son. He says, as I walk around to the boot of the taxi for my bag. Need a hand there, do you?
He’s smiling but I can see panic in his eyes. He always seems mystified as to how to behave around me, as if being a parent has never stopped feeling surreal to him. The way I imagine an amputee might be about their circumstances. He seems frightened of me, almost. I suppose it’s not ideal for him, having me to stay for the first time in God knows how long when he’s in this state. I nod and smile, trying to force happy eyes.
He pinches a lock of my hair. You’ve grown your hair. He says.
Right. I say. Right. Yes. Thank you. Will we go inside then?
In his living room the full extent of the problem hits me. Plates and cups piled under his coffee table. Beer cans and wine bottles. Plastic bags everywhere. I can see a pair of trousers slung over the back of his sofa. And the smell of the place, like sour milk and old wine. Jesus Christ.
Right. I say. I’ll put my bag down here, will I? I set it down on the coffee table, the one surface in the room free of debris. Right, I need the bathroom here.
The bath is full of clothes. A toilet roll has unravelled across the floor and the bin is on its side.
Dad. I shout from upstairs. Why are the clothes in the bath?
I walk out onto the landing and shout again. He comes and stands at the bottom of the stairs.
Why are they in the bath? I say. The shirts and trousers?
Right. He says. Yes. Yes, they’ve just come out of the wash. They were drying on the radiators.
And then? He doesn’t answer. Did you take them off the radiators and put them in the bath? I say. He walks back into the living room.
The kitchen looks like a bomb’s hit it. More dishes and plastic bags. Three bin bags tied up by the backdoor with flattened cardboard boxes stacked beside them. I open the fridge and there are empty takeaway boxes filling the shelves. I find tomatoes spotted with fur, onions sprouting long fingers and a tube of green slime. The remains of an ancient cucumber.
I’m throwing out these old vegetables. I shout over my shoulder. They’re absolutely stinkin’ dad. Disgusting.
He says something but I can’t hear what.
They’ve all turned colours they shouldn’t be. I hear him on the stairs and then opening and closing doors upstairs.
I’m going out to buy things. I’m telling myself as much as him. Equipment. Bleach and things.
Out in the street I look back at his two-storey red brick terrace. I can’t see him in the upstairs bedroom but it’s possible he’s in there, standing back from the window. I wave, just in case, and walk round the corner before I take my phone out.
I click through to my mum’s number. I could call, but what to say? She has her new life now, her new husband who’s a doctor, and fair play.
And if this new life goes wrong she’ll claw her way to another one. Probably an even better one, knowing her. If she lost her job tomorrow she’d have another lined up the same afternoon. And if she couldn’t find one she’d be out sweeping the streets. She grew up on the Bogside and ended up working as an HR manager at KPMG. She knows you have to keep going forward no matter what. I mean everybody sort of knows that, but she really knows it.
Your da is the sort of man you give one chance. She used to say, during their divorce years. It doesn’t work, you cut your losses. Get out as quick as you can.
She was too tough for him. He underestimated that. I suppose there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about her either, and probably still don’t. I never even thought about the way she would carry on, the way she would talk, until long after I stopped living with her. If you’re ever in a situation where someone is shooting at you, where you’re being shot at, don’t run. Get down on the ground and lie flat. Don’t try to run. That was one she used to say all the time, on the walk to school, if she was taking us instead of the childminder. Now can you walk that last bit by yourselves or I’ll miss the start of my meeting?
When he had his affair he thought he could scrape back into her good books. No chance. She changed the locks the same day. He came back and was banging on the door. She stood in the window and phoned his mobile. Fuck. Off. She said, when he answered. And I really, truly, mean that. I mean it.
I thought she might have been calling his bluff but the day with the chicken I knew it was real. She was never one for making dinners but during that whole business she had me and Maureen sitting at the table in the evening, eating our Dunnes Stores microwave lasagnes on plates with a salad. On the Sunday, she announced we would be having Sunday lunch. I looked at Maureen and she was staring straight ahead, frowning. My mum had bought a rotisserie chicken and coleslaw and there were oven chips and steamed frozen vegetables in dishes.
Help yourselves to vegetables and I’ll serve the chicken! She declared, when we were seated.
That was when I saw him, carefully pushing down on the handle of the glass door to the conservatory at the bottom of the kitchen. He would have come down the alley with the bins and then climbed over the fence and crept up through the garden. His body was pressed against the glass.
I said nothing but she would have seen the look on my face. She spun around. Out! She shouted. Get out!
He was already in the kitchen, approaching the table, holding his hands up in the air. I made a mistake. He said. Grainnie. I made a mistake.
Out! She shouted. You will not ruin this lunch. No.
Thirteen years. He said. Grainnie. Thirteen years.
She stepped forward and picked up the plate holding the rotisserie chicken. He grabbed it too. I never knew why he did that. He panicked, I suppose. She pulled it back towards her and the force of the two of them tugging sent the chicken flying into the air. It landed on the kitchen tiles with a sound like a smacked bottom. I couldn’t believe it had happened, but there it was, on its back on the floor. She looked like she would kill him.
They’re my children too! His voice cracked. He’s my son. Grainnie, he’s my son!
Stay where you are. She said, holding her hands up beside her head. Nobody move. I’ll stick it under the tap.
That seemed like the opportune moment for me and Maureen to skulk off for pizza and the computer. I looked at her. She nodded and we slid out of our chairs. They were so busy shouting their lungs out they didn’t notice. They’ve barely been in the same room since.
I look down at my mum’s number again. I hold my finger above the call button and then put the phone back into my pocket.
In the Spar I stand in front of the cleaning products, weighing up my options. I choose bleach and blue cloths. What else? Sponges. There’s window cleaner, but that’s the least of his problems. Bin bags. Another bleach. Green surface cleaner spray? The label says it can be used on any surface. Right, let’s get that too. I grab beers, orange juice, eggs, bread and butter on my way to the tills. At the checkout I buy him a Galaxy bar.
Back at the house he’s nowhere to be seen. Dad. I shout. I’m back with the shopping.
I set my bags down on the kitchen table. Dad?
My phone vibrates. A text from my da: Might have a lie down here son.
I laugh. Fair play to him. I reply: No bother :). I’ll clear up
I start in the front room. At first I’m sorting tins from plastic for recycling but by the middle of the first bag I’ve given up. I just chuck everything in together. Plastic cutlery. Tins. Wine bottles. The old bits of toast I find wedged down the side of the sofa. The only saving grace is the size of the place puts a limit on the mess.
On my third bin bag I check my phone. No more messages from my da.
One from Kimberly: Missing you! And a picture. A selfie of her in her wedding outfit.
I type a reply: Sooo hot. Delete it. I look at my emoji options. The flame? Not quite right. I type Sooo hot again. Stick with that. I add: How’s the wedding?
She replies instantly: Yes! Fun!!
Another Kimberly message: Emma-Kate and Harry engaged too now!!! Last week! They waited to tell everyone in person
Oh Jesus. Another of the school girlies engaged. More pressure there. More evenings where we have to have dinners as couples and Kimberly goes to the bathroom and the girlies ask me why I haven’t proposed yet. They’ll say she wants a special location. Edinburgh Castle is the latest. A place we’ve never been. They’ll go on and on about it, plastered. Why can nobody ask me for anything when they’re sober?
I reply: Omg. Class! Tell them congratulations from me
She replies: I will!!
Another message: How is your dad?
I type: Jesus it’s bad. Delete it.
Where would you even start with explaining him to Kimberly? She’s never met him. She’s met my mum. And then our mums met once, in London. It was like watching a cheetah and a flamingo sitting at the table having dinner. Kimberly’s mum Sara is thin and always wearing grey. Well, both the mums are thin. For different reasons, and different kinds of thin. They’re both blonde too, but different blondes. My mum’s would be more yellow. She was wearing a leopard print dress and red high heels. Kimberly’s mum asked mine what she’d done earlier. My mum said she’d gone to a museum. She said the name of an artist whose exhibition had been on. Sara pronounced the name back to her in a French accent. Well, that was it. My mum asked her what she did for work. I looked at her. She knew fine rightly Sara had always been a housewife. Sara said that Kimberly’s father had been an investment banker before he retired. And yourself? Said my mum, topping up her wine glass. It was all downhill from there. I said to Kimberly after, about them being like a cheetah and a flamingo, and she asked which one was the cheetah. I just looked at her. Well I thought it was a lovely evening. She said.
I type: He’s grand like. Just needs a hand tidying up. He’s resting now
I close that chat and open the one with Liam. I type: What time tonight then? I’m around from whenever
I can see he is typing. I’m easy. 7? 8? Will we grab dinner before or what?
I reply: I reckon I’ll eat with my da. 8?
Sweet! He replies.
I open my chat with Ciara. I type: Short notice, but I’m around this weekend. Are you about?
I can see she has read it. My face feels hot. I put my phone down and pick it up again.
She replies: Hello, well this is a surprise
Another message: A nice one, I mean. Of course!
I catch myself in the mirror, smiling down at the phone.
Another message: I have a birthday I can’t get out of this evening, but shouldn’t be a late one. Or tomorrow, depending when you fly back? How come you’re back anyway?
Ok sweet, I’ll be about tonight. I’ll give you a message later. If not will we say tomorrow?
And it’s my da, he’d an operation. I’m helping out for a bit
Sorry to hear that. Is he alright?
Aye long story, I’ll tell you in person
Ok sweet. Let’s keep in touch this evening then?
I type: Yes! For sure I look through my emojis. Beaming smile? Too matey. Too . . . asexual. The heart eyes? Too far the other way. Would the sunglasses be funny? What would be the joke? Right, no emojis.
I send: Speak soon xx
I can see a message from Kimberly. I ignore it and start on the kitchen. The vegetable crisper is worse than it appeared on first inspection. Papery garlic skins plastered over the bottom. I manoeuvre it out of the fridge. But how would you clean it? I fill it with water from the kettle and stick bleach in. The acid lemon smell fills the kitchen. I leave it to sit while I take the bin bags out.
His majesty surfaces when the worst is over.
Right. Have you thoughts on dinner? He says, standing in the kitchen doorway. There’s a wee Indian place on the next street. Tandoori Dream it’s called.
Right. Hello. I say. Yes. I’ll eat anything.
I set the table with plates and cutlery when the food arrives. He heaps white rice and beef curry onto his plate.
That’s beautiful. He says, before he starts eating. For some reason this annoys me. That smells gorgeous.
Yes. Nothing beats a curry. I say. So did you sleep ok earlier?
Right. Yes. He says. So have you been to any gigs lately? What bands are you listening to?
He’s said nothing about how tidy the place is. I start to wonder if sitting in front of the TV and sticking some rubbish on wouldn’t have been better.
Are you still cooking? I say.
That beef is beautiful. He says.
You were into your cooking there for a while? I say.
Right. Yes. He says. Yes. Any good shows you’re watching?
Right. I say. Ok. None come to mind. I was thinking to go out after dinner. I’ll get some pints in with Liam and some people.
Right. He says. Yes. Get the drinks in with the boys. Good man.
I stick my head into the living room to give him his Galaxy bar before I leave. I got that for your dessert. I say. He’s watching TV with a bottled beer. I toss it at him. He surprises me by catching it.
I check my phone after I fix my hair in the hall mirror.
Messages from Kimberly: Miss you!!!
Pictures of the wedding, a card with Kimberly written in swirly writing, the couple cutting the cake, a group photo of the school girlies, another selfie.
I reply: Apologies, busy with my dad. Gorgeous! Looks like a class day
I stick my phone back in my pocket before any other messages come through.
At the pub I text Liam while I wait for the second serving of my Guinness: Where yous at?
I find him at the pool table, with Rory and Conor. The sight of Rory makes me wince. His hair. No amount of combing it this or that way can take the bad look off it at this stage. He’d be better off hacking it all off. You can see too, under his jacket, that he’s gone the shape of a dessert spoon. He’s a curved back and stomach. Jesus, the sight of him makes me feel about a hundred. Conor and Liam are still in good nick, at least.
Liam waves me over. Alright man. He says. He slaps my back and grasps me into a half hug. Great to see you. I repeat the gesture with Rory and Conor.
Looking well. Says Rory. Looking very well.
And yourself, big lad. I say, as we sit down in a booth. And yourself. I notice their Guinnesses are only a few inches down; we’re not out a round.
Right so. Says Liam. Conor is just telling us about the new girl he has on the go. Conor’s beaming.
Oh aye? I say.
Twenty-three. He nods, he holds his left hand up, to make the numbers with his fingers. Two. Three.
What happened there with your woman? I say.
Oh that’s over. All over. He says, shaking his head. Long story. Long story.
Well, twenty-three, cheers to that. I say. Yes. Twenty-three is the perfect age.
Liam laughs. The perfect age, is it? Why’s that? Conor is still beaming. Rory has a dreamy look on his face.
Twenty-three-year-old boys still don’t really know how to fuck. I say. She’ll think you’re God’s gift. But you can have some kind of conversation with her. It’s not like she’s still in school. But then, at the same time, you’d sound wise.
Don’t talk nonsense. Says Liam, laughing. Twenty-three-year-old boys don’t know how to fuck. He scoffs. Yes they do. Catch yourself on.
Obviously they can. I say. Technically they CAN. But they haven’t a clue what they’re doing. I hadn’t a clue. Liam shakes his head, lifts his Guinness to his lips. You hadn’t either! I say. Admit it to yourself.
He’s right. Says Conor, laughing. Think about it and he’s right. You’d have had to have had a girlfriend a fair while.
Exactly. I say. So now Conor. That’s you off into the sunset now is it?
I wouldn’t go that far. Conor laughs. She’d be quite thick like.
That has me spitting my Guinness out. You can count on Conor never to sugar coat it.
So how’s your da then? Says Rory.
Grand! I say. Aye grand. Nothing too serious. Right. Another round then lads? Liam offers to come to the bar.
As we wait for the drinks he asks me again. So things are good with your da? We’re watching the barman, not looking at each other.
Oh aye. I say. I think so.
Right. He says, putting a hand on my shoulder. But if you need to talk.
Right. I say. Yes. I put my hand on his shoulder too. Then we both drop them. What were my hands doing before? Just by my sides was it? Doesn’t seem right.
I look around for something else to talk about, anything. I spot a familiar face on Liam’s left. Brown eyes. Long shiny hair. Sean’s little sister’s friend, or cousin? But what’s her name? Geraldine? No. Katy? If I introduce her to Liam she might say it.
Alright. I say. I lean over and touch the inside of her wrist. She smiles. Good to see you. Very good to see you. I say. Oh and this is my friend Liam.
Hello, I’m Roxanne. She says. Jesus, yes. Roxanne. How did I go forgetting that one? Not too many of those you meet.
She glances away from me to nod politely at him. Then she’s back, smiling up at me. There’s something in her face. Adoration? I mean, she’s drunk. But she clearly has a thing for me.
I was almost not going to say hello there. She says. I wasn’t sure you’d recognise me.
What. You? I say, laughing. No, I wouldn’t have forgotten you. I can see her face flush. If there’s one thing I know about women it’s that they all want to think they’re unforgettable. So what are you at tonight? I say.
Oh it’s a friend’s birthday. Upstairs.
A birthday is it? I say. And what age is it?
It’s her twenty-fourth. She says. Actually it was mine too there, a few weeks ago.
I glance at Liam, I can’t help it. And then I bark with laughter at the look on his face. I rub my mouth right after, as if I could wipe the laugh away. That starts Liam laughing too.
What’s the joke? She says.
Ah it’s too long a story. I say. It’s not a good joke anyway.
Right. Liam says, nodding to the pints. Will we get these back upstairs?
She hugs both of us before she heads back off to her birthday, but she definitely lingers on me.
Those looks will fade. Liam says, laughing, on the way up the stairs. I tell you.
Do you reckon she was that good looking? I say. I think it’s the long hair. Picture her without it like.
Oh god. He says. Guinness sloshes out of one of his glasses and onto the floor. I didn’t mean her.
I know. I know. I say, laughing. Believe me. I am well aware.
As we approach our seats I get the fright of my life. Ciara is sitting in the booth, nodding along as Rory talks. She’s frowning in concentration. She always looks like that when she’s listening. And she always says sure, a lot, and nods. And you feel like she understands. And you find you can talk to her about anything. And then whatever she says about it is always surprising, because you can never really tell what she’s thinking. Which is not the only surprising thing about her. For example, every time I see her naked I’m surprised at how muscular her arms and back are, because her hands are so delicate. And every summer, when she has freckles on her nose, there is something strange about that, something uncharacteristically childlike. And the last time I slept with her I found myself saying I would end things with Kimberly. And I was surprised I’d said it but didn’t want to take it back. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, though, which was terrifying.
She took a photograph of me later that morning. She’d never done that before. I asked if I could see it and she said no, but she did show me some others. She asked me to help her choose between five to submit for an exhibition. I barely remember the photos. But I can still see her hands pointing out certain details. Then she had to go to work at the museum shop.
She turns around and sees us and the concentration in her face opens out into a smile. A bright smile, but with cheekiness underneath it, with raised eyebrows. I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach. My face goes red. The thing is nobody else smiles like that.
Hello! She says. She doesn’t stand up.
Right. Hello. I say. My voice sounds shrill. Right. So, what are you doing here?
It’s good to see you too. She says. The birthday I’m at is upstairs and I thought I’d have a wander around. I had a feeling you’d be here too.
Yes. No. Good to see you. Of course. I say. Great to see you, definitely. Yes. So it’s upstairs? Whose birthday is it again? I can feel my face going redder and redder.
I don’t think you know them. She says.
Right. Yes. I say. So what age are they turning?
What? She says. Why are you so interested in this birthday? She’s the same age as me.
Right. Yes. No. Great. No reason. I glance at Liam.
What is it? She says. Why are you looking at Liam?
Someone we know was out for a birthday pub crawl, we were hoping to avoid it. But he’s older.
Right I see. She says, shaking her head. I don’t know if she believes me. Well, Rory was just telling us about his Tinder exploits. It sounds tough out there. You were in the middle of the latest one? Did you hear from her again?
Rory starts on about the date they’d had, and how well it had gone, and the follow up messages. I wonder how she’s got him onto this. But that’s what she’s like. She doesn’t seem like she’s judging you, so you find yourself telling her things. I told her that once. I’m not judging. She said. Or I try not to. You can’t get anything out of anyone that way. I hadn’t a clue what to do with that response. I tried to make a joke out of it, saying that if the photography thing didn’t work out she would make a great therapist. I think it’s all the same thing really. She said. I mean, I think that’s what art is about. Trying to understand people better. I didn’t know what to say to that. The sincerity of it.
Liam and I take our seats. I’m opposite Ciara and I consider stroking her leg with my foot under the table. I don’t even realise how bad an idea that is until my left foot is poised and ready to go. We sip our pints as Rory talks. She catches me looking at her as Rory is explaining about how he saw this girl out, after being ignored, and she pretended she’d got a new phone, and smiles.
Do you fancy another drink? I say to her. We’ll go to the bar, will we? It’s my round.
Thank you. She says. But I’m not drinking, actually.
Right. I say. Right. Yes. Just tonight or?
No. Not just tonight. She says, smiling. I’m not really a good drinker, you know.
When did that happen? I say.
She laughs. What, not being a good drinker? I think always. I stopped four months ago, actually five next week. I’ll tell you all about it later. I should head back up here, but we’re going back to Claire’s after. You should all come.
Right enough. Rory says, as if she’s inviting him personally.
Yes. I say, shooting him a look. Yes, we’ll all come.
Liam watches her walk across the room then turns to me. I would actually take another there, if it’s your round again?
When last orders are called they’ve had six pints each. I’ve slowed down and stuck to four. Not exactly as sober as Ciara will be, but not far off. My phone is out on the table so I can see when messages come in. More from Kimberly light up the screen. I leave them. It’s not out of the question that I’d have had an early night.
When I glance over and it’s Ciara’s message I grab it off the table. Liam and Conor snort with laughter.
Look at you. Says Conor. Get a hold of yourself man. Liam laughs harder and Rory asks what we’re laughing at.
We go into an off-licence on the walk over but we needn’t have bothered. There’s gin, vodka, whiskey, even tequila, gathered on the kitchen counter. It’s a tiny, grotty space. There’s a white cooker with its steel legs visible. Plywood cupboards. A plastic table with wooden chairs. I make us vodka lemonades and we head through to the front room where people are sitting on tattered sofas or standing in small groups.
Ciara introduces us to birthday girl Claire. She has an oily chin and her hair is too short for her face so your eye can’t help but be drawn to it. Happy birthday, thanks for having us! I tell her, as we go round in a circle, saying our names. Right, good to meet you. Says Liam.
Yes! Says Rory.
Great. And what’s your name? I hear her ask him, as I take a seat on the sofa arm beside Ciara. A boy is drawing out lines on a shiny black book balanced on his knee.
One for your friend too? He asks Ciara. Ciara turns her head to look up at me.
You are? I say to her. She nods.
Is it coke? I say to your man. He nods. Aye go on then. Thank you. I can stick you some money over?
Na, don’t worry about it. He says, as he goes back to organising the lines.
She turns to me. I know. I know. But I’m not trying to be totally sober, like. She says. I had an edible earlier. I would still do coke, MD, whatever. Acid the odd time. Not ket, but you know I never did. Drugs never did me in the way drinking did, though. She smiles. I suppose I wouldn’t ever have afforded a drug problem. So there’s that too. She laughs. It’s not exactly a real laugh, but not totally without humour either.
I hold my hands up. I didn’t say anything. No judgement from me. I could stand to cut back on the drink too.
Well it’s getting older, isn’t it. She says, nodding. Can’t treat your body like shite.
I watch her cover one nostril with her thumb as she snorts her line. She wipes powder from her nostril with one finger. Gracefully, somehow. Then she passes me the book.
When I look up from my line Rory is sitting there grinning at me. Any of that going? He says. I want nothing more than to tell him to go away, well away, but Ciara asks her friend before I can say anything. He says that’s grand.
Thank you. Says Rory, still grinning. So here, how are the photographs going?
Well. She says, glancing behind her to check on the progress of his line. They’re going. No. Yes, it’s going alright.
I’d have thought there’d be no money in it? He says.
God is there not? She says. There was me thinking there was. Well, thank you for telling me.
Rory takes the book. She has a good way of dealing with questions like that. Or if someone tries to wind her up deliberately, rather than just being gormless like Rory, saying what about a pension or buying a house, she’ll say something like: Well I don’t draw a pension yet, I’m not even thirty or I’m not in the market for a house just now, but thanks for asking. She raises her eyebrows as if it’s all a big joke. It’s not just the eyebrows, though, it’s the whole demeanour. It’s impossible to embarrass her, you only end up looking stupid yourself. I don’t know how she does it, but I suppose if I did it wouldn’t work.
Well, here, it’s good to see you. She says to me. What brought you back? You said your dad was it?
With Rory listening in I can’t very well go into the whole situation. I tell her he’s fine, mostly, having issues with his mobility and cooking, and that I offered to come back for a week or so.
A week or so? Right. She nods. And what’s Kimberly at then? Did she come back too?
I glance at Rory. He takes that as his invitation to speak. You were saying she was at a wedding? He says. Or was that tomorrow?
I can’t see Ciara’s face and I don’t dare to turn around.
Well of course it’s today. I say, tutting. Who gets married on a Sunday? Have you ever known anyone to get married on a Sunday?
Fair enough, yes. He says, nodding pensively. You’re right, now you say it. They don’t, do they? So it’s today? And who is it? That’s the worst thing about Rory. You can’t even snap at him. He doesn’t notice. Everything bounces off him.
One of Kimberley’s friends. I say. A school friend, I don’t know her so well.
I hear Ciara laugh from down at my elbow. A real laugh, with warmth and depth to it. There’s no snideness I can detect. So you thought you’d get out of it, did you? Didn’t fancy a night out with the girlies? She says. You used your dad to get out of it? What are you like!
No. No, he did need help. I say, laughing too, trying not to sound nervous. No, the two things are separate. I would have gone. I didn’t not want to go, no. I look down at her and she raises her eyebrows, but I don’t get the sense I’m in real trouble.
The book comes back again. We each do another line. I scan the room, checking if Liam or Conor is nearby for me to send Rory their way. Liam is in the corner, chatting to a pretty girl wearing a leather skirt. Great legs. Not fair to land him with it. No sign of Conor. Right, he’s my problem then.
I like weddings. Says Rory. He’s gazing into the distance with his dreamy look. I like the dancing, all the different age groups. Good craic.
Hmm. Says Ciara. I suppose it depends who’s getting married.
Yes. Good craic. I say, searching in what he’s said, for a hook to a different conversation.
Have you thought for yourself man? He says to me, still with the dreamy expression. Would you be getting married anytime soon? Would you propose, do you reckon?
Ciara laughs. A sharp bark. But still warm, on balance. I think.
Right. Well, no. I say. No, I hadn’t planned. I won’t. With Kimberley. I don’t think it’s the right thing. It’s a for now thing.
Is it? Says Rory. Oh I didn’t know that. Now his face is imploring. As if I’ve said something grave.
I don’t think he knows what he wants either, Rory. She says. Or he does but he says one thing and he means another. That’s what he’s like.
Oh. Says Rory. Oh right.
I can tell she’s looking at me, not Rory. He stares at me too, with doleful eyes. I turn to face her.
It’s complicated. I say. That’s all it is.
What’s complicated? She says.
You know. We live together. I say. Her dad owns the house.
She looks at me like I’ve announced I’ve an alien with me, hiding under my jacket. Jesus Christ. She says, kneading her forehead. So you move somewhere else. That’s what you do in that situation. You. Move.
No. I say. No, but it’s not that easy. It’s not the same as it is for you. To just move. You don’t have to. Well. It’s not as easy. I stop myself from saying that she just does what she wants. Because I know what she’ll say to that: why don’t I? And I have no good answer there.
No, go on. She says. What is it I don’t have to do? Really? How can it be my fault if you don’t like your life? It’s nothing to do with me. No, you know what? I won’t have it. I have to make the same choices as anyone else. I don’t have a magic key or whatever it is you think I have. You can all joke about me not having money or whatever stupid thing it is next time. Have a good laugh. But you can’t carry on as if I have a magic key at the same time.
Oh no I wasn’t joking. Says Rory. I’m sorry.
Shut. Up. She says, without turning her head.
Sorry, yes. He says. Right. I’m away to take a piss here. He gets up and slides out of his corner, his stomach almost grazes our faces.
I didn’t say you had a magic key. I say. I can sense the room watching us. That’s not what I said.
Don’t speak to me like I’m stupid. She says. Don’t give me that. You know the key is metaphorical. You know what I’m talking about.
She’s right. I do know what the magic key is: it’s when I act as if she’s been given special permission from someone, somewhere, to live the way she wants to and I haven’t. The fact is neither of us has special permission. Or, I suppose we both do. You could look at it that way.
Sorry, yes. I say. I do know. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.
Right. Let’s forget about it. She says. Is there another line of coke there?
She snorts hers then passes me the book. I’m glad of the conciliatory gesture, thinking we really are putting it behind us. Then she starts talking.
So the wedding was today and you flew in this morning? She says. And you texted me today. Right. And when did your dad get out of the hospital?
I weigh up whether I should lie. No, not worth it.
Right. I say. So it was two weeks ago he got out. But he was saying he was fine. And he was saying his girlfriend was there. Well, no. It’s not that he was saying she was, but he wasn’t saying she wasn’t, if you get me.
Yes. She says. So when did he ask you back?
Thursday. I say. And then with work.
But you could have come on Friday? You could have come to help your dad on the Friday. She says. When are you leaving? Actually you know what, don’t bother? I’m going to head home here.
I don’t think she’s serious but then she’s on her feet and getting her things together, saying goodbye to her friends while everyone looks at me like I’ve about seventy heads. God knows what she’d have done if I’d told the truth about when he called.
I smile and nod and follow her out into the street. She’s about a dozen houses away but she’s not running. That’s something.
Ciara! I shout. She stops instantly; the second good sign. That’s another thing I know about women, though. They all love a big, grand display. Even Ciara. To be chased after, phoned in the middle of the night, praised in superlatives. You can make up for a lot by doing something like that. You just have to not be embarrassed to do it. Look, I’m sorry! I shout. Here, wait there. I jog towards her.
She’s standing under a lamp post, framed by orange light. I try to get a read of her body language, planning what to say. Her arms are folded, but her shoulders are hunched. She’s made herself small. She’s not poised for a shouting match; it’s a hug I think.
I pull her towards me and she doesn’t push back. No, she wraps her arms around me, tighter than I was expecting. Her face is buried in such a way that it takes me a few seconds to realise she’s crying.
Ciara? I whisper. I try to lift her head but she shakes it, presses herself further into my chest.
It’s the coke. I can hear her say. It’s the coke. It’s the coke. I’m crying because we did all that coke.
I smooth her hair. The thing is she won’t have wanted to make a scene. I wait until I feel her body relax.
Will we go back to yours? I whisper.
She pulls away. Slowly, though. She wipes under her eyes. No. She says. I don’t think so, you know.
It’s a no that wants to be a yes, though. A no that wants to be talked around.
Just to talk, I mean. I say.
She laughs, the relieved laugh that often follows a cry. That’s what we do isn’t it?
I’m not that drunk. I say. If you don’t want to take me home because you think I’m too drunk, I can promise you I’m not that drunk.
She wipes under her eyes again. No it’s not that.
If it’s because you have things to do tomorrow then I promise I’ll leave, I won’t be a pest.
No it’s not that. I don’t have work tomorrow.
If there’s someone you’re seeing you can tell me. I say. I’m a big boy.
No. Nobody in particular anyway.
I can see I’m getting there. I take her hands.
Seriously. I say. The wedding. I explained that badly. I know. Words start coming from nowhere. When my dad got out of hospital he was saying it was all fine, and he never mentioned your woman had left. I don’t even know when she did. I don’t think it’s specifically the operation. But he is bad. Jesus, you should see him.
She squeezes my hands. I can feel every emotion I’ve had for the entire day fighting to get to the surface.
And it’s just me. I can’t.
I know. She says, she moves her thumbs up and down the outside of my hands. I breathe in and out. I know. He’s a drinker too, isn’t he?
Oh, yes. I say. Well yes but no. He’s a big drinker, like. But that’s not the problem. It’s more like a nervous breakdown, I suppose you would call it? I want to laugh but I’m scared I’ll lose control and cry. You know that kind of way?
Yes. She says. I think I know.
You know what it is? He won’t face up to anything. Words from nowhere again. I don’t know what happened with this woman this time, but it’s always the same. It never works out, and then she’ll vanish, and he’s back to square one. It’s like he can’t see the consequences of anything, or he doesn’t want to. Then things never work out how he wants. With my mum, you know, that was predictable to everyone but him. He never got over her, you know. I stop for more deep breaths.
I know. She says, massaging my hands with her thumbs.
This time he seems to just want to hide himself away. I say. It’s like he never accepted his life was his real life. Do you know that kind of way?
I think I know the way you mean. She says.
Right, sure. I smile, the threat of a cry seems to have dissipated. Yes, fair play.
We can get a coffee if you want to talk about your dad? She says. This week sometime?
What, still no? I say.
You don’t really want a pity fuck. She says but she hasn’t dropped her hands.
I might. I say.
She laughs then.
Does anyone make you laugh like I do? I say. Anyone else? I’m pulling out all the stops here. I didn’t even call you crazy earlier. I could have.
Thank you. She says. Thank you for affording me that dignity.
I know why you’re annoyed. I say. I said I was thinking of leaving Kimberley and didn’t. But can I remind you, you never said anything in that conversation. You didn’t say to do it. You said nothing.
It’s not my decision to make. She says.
That’s not it. I say. The truth of it is you don’t think it would work between us. But I know it could.
She smiles. So there’s your decision made?
You still haven’t said what you think.
Do you think you wouldn’t resent me if you had to live with me?
Well, you wouldn’t. There’s lots of things you don’t do. For example, you wouldn’t want me to propose.
She shakes her head. I’m not sure that sounds how you want it to sound.
You know what I mean.
You’re right. I wouldn’t want that. Don’t propose. She says. Here, do you know what the phrase object permanence means?
What? I say. Actually, yes. Yes I do. It’s when a baby can’t remember their toy unless it’s in front of them. But no. I don’t have that. If that’s what you’re saying I have.
For a few seconds I think she’s going to kiss me.
Right. I’m away to bed, here. She says. Goodnight.
She still hasn’t let go of my hands. To bed? You just had to ask. I say. One last try, why not.
She squeezes my hands before dropping them.
Then the coffee? I say. Let’s do that. This week.
Sounds good. She says. Text me.
I watch her walk down the street. I think about running after her but this time the grand display is to let her go.
Back at my da’s I find his lordship asleep on the sofa in his newly-clean living room. Not lying down, just sitting with his head slumped forward.
No chance of getting him up the stairs. I pull the blanket out from under him and try to negotiate him onto his side. He grumbles in his sleep and starts to hum.
In the name of the Father. He shouts. His eyes open.
Jesus don’t get religious on me now boyo. I whisper.
What? He says. Son. What? My son. You’re my son. You’re the same as you always were.
Right. I say. Thank you. Bed now.
He lies down on his side and is straight back asleep. He’ll have no memory of this in the morning. As if he’d bring it up if he did.
I sit down on the bed and get my phone out. I can see messages from Kimberley. I swipe them off the screen. I open my chat with Ciara.
I type: Talk tomorrow? No, no question mark. Jesus Christ, man. Not a question mark. What are you playing at? No, but not nothing after that tomorrow. Can’t just leave it sitting there like that. xx? Aye, try that.
I type: Home safe? Talk tomorrow xx. Yes, much better. Send.
And I do mean it. We will talk. I’ll text, I might even call. She’d like that.
I can see her friends from last night asking about me. What was his craic, then? Did you get rid of him. She could say: oh aye, he’s always chasing after me but he has a girlfriend he won’t leave. He’s lonely because of stuff with his dad, and he’s had a big crush on me from way back.
Jesus she could tell them I phone her every year on Christmas Eve and if she doesn’t answer I leave about seven messages and voice messages too. God the things she could say.
But she wouldn’t do that. I trust her. That’s probably why I do any of that stuff.
I’ll tell her that tomorrow. Or I’ll as much as tell her. I’ll say, I appreciate you not making a big thing or what have you the other night. She’ll know what I mean.
She replies instantly: Yes! Just in. Speak tomorrow xxxx
Four x’s? Very nice.
There’s a conversation there we haven’t ended. I’ll pick it up tomorrow. But, whatever, tomorrow doesn’t solve tonight.
I open up Instagram and type Roxanne into the search. No hits in the first few profiles. I try a different spelling before navigating to Sean’s profile. I search his followers under Rox. Yes, there she is. Bingo! Follows me already. Good stuff.
I unzip my jeans and reach my right hand into my boxers. I swipe through her photos with my hand on my dick, using my left hand to navigate the phone. Holiday photos in a bikini. Night out photos in bodycon dresses. Not doing it. Probably can’t even get hard in person because of the coke. But in the morning? Different story. I click follow back and then open up the messages.
What would be the worst thing I could possibly send her?
I want you to suck my dick and then let me cum on your tits and then let me spread it all over them while I finger you
I smile at that. Tame in my old age.
I want to bend you over your bed and fuck you in the ass
Will you let me cum in your asshole?
I’m scared about my dad and I’m lonely. Can I spend the night with you?
I’m a spineless prick
Jesus. God. Fuck.
I type: I really want to fuck you so badly. Delete it.
The really. Too much?
I type it out again: I want to fuck you so badly
Somehow more too much than it was with the really.
I type: I really want to fuck you sooo badly
I can see she’s read it. The moment of truth. She starts typing.
She replies: Hello! You still out then?
Image © Tom Wachtel
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