Comfort and Joy: a new story for Christmas by Caoilinn Hughes

Despite glad tidings, all is not sweetness and light at a festive gathering of old friends

Caoilinn Hughes at the An Post Irish book awards in 2018 in Dublin. Photograph: Phillip Massey/Getty Images

Caoilinn Hughes at the An Post Irish book awards in 2018 in Dublin. Photograph: Phillip Massey/Getty Images

 

Luke hadn’t wiped his feet on the outdoor or indoor welcome mat, so a trail of melted snow betrays his enduring sloppiness and his route through their tiled reception hall, corridor and south-facing kitchen, where a six-strong gathering has spent the past hour sucking cheese from their teeth while watching Keith Hawkshaw-Carr make a show of sharpening the carving knife in just two strokes – it only needs two strokes by the way – and shimmying his tray of double-roasted potatoes so drenched in duck-fat that each appears to be wrapped in brown greaseproof paper. His pecs have a certain potato quality as he does the shimmying. He has been hard at work.

Gillian Hawkshaw-Carr, who only made the cranberry sauce and uncorked things, is nonetheless exhausted from bearing witness to her husband. She focuses her gaze on the slushy footprints patterning their tiling, without any particular will for the footprints to be gone. No harm in a bit of chaos about the place. Someone might slip and it might be gas. Keith, for one, hasn’t noticed the puddles. She could stand over one of the bigger ones – one foot on either side – and say: Holy shit, my waters just broke.

She’ll take a selfie with no make-up for the app so as not to get her hopes up regarding a child’s cuteness

A mucky floor isn’t a bad thing to dwell on, considering. She’s had one positive test and mistakenly told Keith. She warned him it’s way too early to bank on anything but he’s a man who loves to bank. She’d ordered five more tests on Boots.ie and they were delivered during the busyness of today’s Christmas party prep and, tomorrow, if they’re all positive she’ll stop drinking. She’ll sober up to the fact of it and download the face-mashup apps to see what it might look like. But even then, absolutely no telling people till March, she’d warned him. She’ll take a selfie with no make-up for the app so as not to get her hopes up regarding a child’s cuteness. She wonders will the app factor in her being 40. Keith will mislead the app because he’s in better form than should be genetically possible. He’s sort of … 120 percented himself, all for show. He’s wearing a costume of the man he thinks himself to be, and the seams are rending. After Gillian and Keith signed the papers on the place, he’d snuck back to the bank to extend the mortgage for an extravagant home gym and a wine cellar.

This was around the time Shane Conroy started dating Fiona from Instagram. One in five of Fiona’s posts are #ads, acknowledging wellness swag she’s been sent, from decaf espresso martinis to hosiery. She’s a confusingly beautiful “wellness accountant” who brought “frazzled green beans in a sherried-mushroom reduction” to the party … after posting a video of her eating a dripping forkful of it to product-test a “kiss-proof” plum lipstick. Conroy didn’t understand potluck and brought a packet of smoked salmon, handing it to Gillian in its SuperValu plastic bag.

Keith wanted to have the party be just the four of them, but Gillian said that Fiona – while nice to look at – causes her to have an out-of-body experience because she speaks in predictive text; the AI phrase prompting greyly across her vision before she voices each and every suggestion. I need mental stimulation, no offence, Gillian said. We’ve let ourselves go intellectually. When I look in the mirror, I see all the Lines of Duty we binged in a fortnight. If I get baby brain from this level of neural activity, I won’t be able to teach a child English. And I feel isolated. When Keith said that, for stimulation, they could befriend a clever bent copper in Kells, Gillian suggested the old uni crew. It had always been craic with the five of them – Gillian, Keith, Conroy, Luke and Zara – back in the day. It’s been years since they’ve all hung out. Is it not a bit morto to invite Zara to a couples thing? Keith said, to which Gillian pointed out that Luke was also single. Yeah but Zara’s in Northern Ireland! Keith declared this as an indisputable argument with too many subfacts to even begin listing. Gillian asked was there a maths compass lying about to poke him in the eye with … and to show him on a map that Newry’s as equidistant to Kells as Dublin is.

They’re seven in the end, because Zara brought her 23-year-old son, Ultan, as her plus-one. Ultan arrived in (shoes off) with a dish of roasted squash with buttered dates and hazelnuts, a potato-leek gratin, and a general air of feminism that made Keith and Conroy squeeze their beers, exchanging cancellation-expectant glances. When asked what he’d like to drink, Ultan says his mum brought non-alcoholic pale ales but they might need cooling. Oh that’s beyond the pale, Keith says in some sort of accent and Conroy bloats his cheeks in inexpressible glee and turns to bury a kiss into Fiona’s neck, as he needs to fart out that laugh somewhere. Fiona wriggles him off, but the wet patch on her neck glitters in the spotlights.

Ultan, we’ve a Lagunitas IPNA – Gillian heads for the fridge – if my husband shifts his spotty arse out of the way. She faces Fiona for commiseration: He won’t try talc. Would you ever go over and influence him?

Fiona bares her white teeth. Oh, he’s your husband.

From up above her body, Gillian turns this rejoinder over and considers that she’d been quite wrong about Fiona and the AI. Down in her body, she must be ogling Fiona, as an ellipsis pulses across her expression until Fiona utters the neutering gutpunch: Your house is so nice.

*

Keith is at the head of the table, with Conroy and Fiona on either side. They’re talking changes to the country’s personal injury legislation – long overdue and inadequate – and that level of medium-brow discourse lasts for a matter of minutes before Keith begins compiling a list of personal injuries that should in fact be litigable … like Ugg boots, and people who cite the environmental impact of cryptocurrencies, who are usually the same people that CC other colleagues in response to an email you just sent to her.

She’s always had this devastating tendency to barely give you crumbs all evening, then to utter something very late at night that parses everything that had been said

Keith awaits Conroy’s personal injury oneupmanship, but Conroy’s engaging in footsy with Fiona and he cannot multitask so he just says: Yeah, man. People who tell you about their medical stuff. Should be sued.

Since this isn’t even funny enough to pretend that it is, Keith finishes his own beer, then Conroy’s, then starts pouring wine.

At the other end of the table is Zara, who is quiet for the beginnings and middles of evenings – Gillian remembers. She’s always had this devastating tendency to barely give you crumbs all evening, then to utter something very late at night that parses everything that had been said into a profounder and subtler conclusion than it deserved, and then the real talk begins. It was for this reason that Gillian insisted on her staying over. She’d argued, You want to be able to have a drink! But when Zara said her son was a teetotaler and could drive them home, Gillian had to admit to wanting to stay up late with Zara, like old times. To talk until they were too woozy to get up and change the album, until it was only the static of vinyl spinning and tracing the groove, flustering dust motes, crackling like something that might catch fire.

Zara is wearing a black, fine-wool sweater-dress, garnished with long silver strands that must’ve come loose as she plaited her hair. At 45, she’s the eldest of the group, having dropped out of uni in her final year of a lit degree in Belfast, pregnant, then having attended UCD as a mature student. (Gillian never asked how she’d managed financially as a single mum in Dublin because Gillian was middle class and it was crude to ask about survival, but one night Zara said that she managed because the dad had not been a student.) At UCD, she did Psychology with a minor in Spanish but couldn’t do the overseas year in Madrid because of Ultan. Whereas Keith and Gillian did do the overseas year, both to Georgetown in Washington DC.

Luke – sitting opposite Gillian – did Psychology and Economics, same as Keith. Luke can be mordantly funny when he finds the will. They’d seen him do stand-up a few times in college, and pictured a very different, unruly, peripatetic life for him. He’d needed to change his course of study, obviously; drop the economics at least. That he never found the sobriety to arrange that – the interviews, paperwork, making a case for himself – seemed a small frustration about his personality at the time. He was so droll, the omnipresent stout was part of the shtick. There was a time Keith banked on Luke “making it, despite himself”. The dude has merit, Gillian recalls him insisting over cocktails in DC, telling random strangers about our friend Luke.

Gillian was glad to see that, while she’d been talking at Zara, Luke was having a hushed, intense chat with Ultan that almost drew her away from the long philtrum of Zara’s mouth, whose arrow quality has become more pronounced with age, like that blue eagle in the Muppets that looks like Alan Rickman. The psychology degree in Gillian couldn’t help but underline the fact that she’d just thought of a blue, stuffed bird of prey and a prematurely dead actor-slash-professor-of-the-dark-arts while admiring her long-lost friend.

You don’t drink at all, do you not, Ultan? Keith asks loudly, so that the words come out through a mouthful of squash. The table quietens.

No, I don’t.

That’s interesting. That’s admirable. For a young fella.

I did a fair few unadmirable things on the drink, so. Really a lot I’m not proud of. I’ve a lot of regrets. For a young fella.

Right, Keith says, glancing about the reverent table. Jesus in a manger!

I did counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy and that did help, so it did. I could understand why I was doing it, and what it was doing to other people. How I was hurting people. By Keith’s expression, it’s unclear if this talk is one bit welcome, so Ultan asks: How’s about you?

Keith sucks air through his teeth. Oh I do three days off, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, which is great. That way I can keep tabs on it. On this fella too. He actually lifts his shirt out of his waistband and smacks his hairy paunch. (Gillian mistakenly told him his belly is his best feature and not to go too wild with the fitness regimen. Now she can feel her cheeks baking. Don’t dare say it, she thinks. Do not get the merry notion that now is the moment to announce a bun in the oven.) I don’t like low-calorie beer, Keith says. I just don’t. Some people do. In response to this, Ultan nods slowly with a priest’s frown. Keith adds: Ah, sure, self-care, you know? Fiona can tell us all about it. (Fiona inhales to speak, but Keith has more in the tank.) And come here to me, Ultan. What do you do? For work?

I’m unemployed at the minute.

Right. And you’ve a degree in what again?

Her eyes glisten at her own ability and privilege to say these things on behalf of her generation

I’ve joint honours in History and Byzantine Studies. I’d been doing contact tracing there for the NHS and that was good, but it dried up. Then Mum needed some things done round the house, and my lease was up. So I’m helping out.

Fair dues. Good on you.

Cheers.

You moved back in with your mother.

I did.

But she’ll forgive you if you’re handy with a powertool? She’ll scramble your vegan eggs for you!

Ach, it’s more that my mother’s mother died of Covid and there’s all her stuff. There’s a lot to work through, so there is, so we’re doing that.

Ultan really hits his Ts, and that one sounded of a champagne bottle popping.

Oh my god. I’m so sorry, Gillian grasps Zara’s wrist. You poor pet. How come you never said? Why didn’t you call me? I’d’ve come up in a heartbeat.

Ultan sees his mum’s throat tighten so he says, It was tricky, Ms Carr, because we both had it. Mum was caring for her mum, then she had it during the funeral and all – she was quite sick, mum was, despite the vaccination – and I nursed her then and had it, I was fine but. Had to lie low. It’s been a bit of a wile time and youse’re the first people we’ve seen out the house. There’s been people in and out, but. This is different. Thanks so much for the invitation.

Fiona throws the wavy boa of her hair behind her shoulder. I’m sorry but can I just say: Wow. Ultan, isn’t it? Wow. What an inspiring man. You’re inspiring. Everything you just said. Like, you’re actually wise. I’m 35 so I’m not that much older than you but I stop qualifying as young this year according to the Sunday Times, and I hope this isn’t patronising but I hear young people like you, so ...conscientious ... and I’m like ... I don’t know. She shrugs. I’m buoyed. She nods at the words coming out of her mouth and her eyes glisten at her own ability and privilege to say these things on behalf of her generation. She lifts her wineglass. Here’s to you and your lovely mother, who raised a gentleman, and drove all the way here to meet a table of strangers, effectively. After everything? That’s a milestone. That deserves a cheers.

Hear hear, Gillian says, cheersing a bemused Zara.

Hear hear, Keith repeats, then adds, in a drunken accent: That there.

Ultan’s smile gives Gillian the shivers because it’s the smile his mother almost never gives. Mostly, for a smile, she’ll dip her chin and squint, or couple a deadpan expression with a heh sound. The full smile only emerges against her will, which makes it so betraying.

Cheers to the youth. Gillian stands up to clink with Ultan and – catching her balance – she spots the very long thumbnail of an acoustic guitarist, which is gross, and makes her wonder if he’s actually a bit of a stretch to live with … if it’s overbearing, all those named obstacles and isms being mindfully circumnavigated. She must’ve voiced some aspect of his thought (there’s been wines) because now Zara is admitting to her in a low slur that she would quite like him to move out lively, because, what with That Woman (the late mum) finally gracing them with her absence, there’s nothing stopping Zara from indulging her proclivities. Something about this menopause has her thinking, What was all that for, that restraint, all those years? That accommodation? I feel delirious.

Nothing to do with the M word, but Gillian had been feeling hot flushes all day. It’s why she’s wearing a sheer maroon blouse with only the bra underneath, which is a bit cougar-ish and normally she’d be wearing a cami – especially at a sit-down thing where you can see her folds through the fabric. But she’d been so hot. Why her hair’s in a barrette, to have it off her neck. Still, she feels the need to splash herself with cold water immediately. Conroy is thwacking a spoon against their Galway crystal, saying: If we’re doing toasts, I’m passing the mic to clammyhand Luke down the far end to tell us what he’s been upta and how the fuck you’re getting on, McCay? Gillian is up and excusing herself to the loo – giving Luke a tell-him-to-go-hump-himself look, and also we-missed-you – but before she backs away, she promises Zara: We’ll hatch a plan later to get him out.

The bathroom tiles are cool against her cheek. A frigid grey ocean mottling up to her; letting her down. It’s not the first time she’s felt the caress of a bathroom tile on her cheek. Isn’t this what they’d done together in uni? Drunk too much and said nothing. There’s a bit of a wave to the floor now, so she pushes up off it for a railing to clutch. She’s only 40. It’d be highly unusual for it to kick in now – perimenopause. And besides, there’d been the pregnancy. Where was it? The Boots bag. As she roots through it, she expects to find vacuum-packed salmon. She’d bought copious things on the website on the logic that if a delivery fella’s coming all the way down her drive in the middle of nowhere … She has half a mind to paint that ash-blonde dye onto her hair including her brows and pubis and to sit in the bath until she’s blanched Icelandic, then to emerge from the bathroom in the nude, to rip a wing off the turkey and to take it onto the Scandi rug Keith was inspired to buy from a swish porno. Influenced … is the word for it. In her fist isn’t a leg of turkey but something like a baster. Yes, she’d bought that in case the pregnancy hadn’t taken. A home IVF kit, type of thing. What else? Tests: pregnancy, antigen, ovulation. She does all the tests in lieu of a horoscope – hoping she didn’t mix up the one up the nose and the one for urination – and lays them round the floor in various states of drying. While that’s going on, she brushes her teeth with Keith’s sonic toothbrush that cost the same as a couch. It’s supposed to sound out the tartar. She feels the waves pounding through her.

Blue. Yes, the one with the blue handle. Two lines, like yesterday. There we go. Pregnant. Fierce accurate, those things. And twins, by the looks: two more red lines appear on the other square of plastic. Is that the eggs now or what? No, no no, that’s the antigen. All the tests, shards of moon. That’s the Covid test. That’s the Covid.

This heat is not the menopause. She licks her slippy teeth in the mirror.

He’d be accurate for the mashup app now, slump-shouldered, Santa-bellied, delusions of virility dashed

He’s an awful child, really. A manchild is what he is. It’s a good sign she’s capable of loving. It was a false positive, she’ll tell him. He’ll have to wait till the end of the first trimester like a distant friend. Collecting the tests from the floor is no mean feat, nor is lifting the cistern lid of the toilet. The tests drop in like razorshells to be boiled. Razorfish raked up out of her ocean-bed. She flicks off the light before leaving and has to grope for the doorknob. She gets a fright to see Zara outside the bathroom, roaming the hall for the spare room, where she’s meant to stay. They stand before one another, radiating heat through the darkness. Night and day, all muddled in their conduct. It would be the perfect time to show her the room. To make it up. Zara says nothing, as is her wont. They say nothing. Gillian hears her own breath, and considers its virulence. She did scrub her teeth, but … this woman’s mum died of the very stuff on her tongue. Secreting through her perspiration. How long has it been? Gillian wonders. Does she have the anti-body?

I’m on my way now, Zara says.

Sorry?

I’m away off.

Oh, don’t … Gillian says, but her voice trails. It’s hard to get the words out without them travelling. But … we haven’t really talked about anything …

Zara steps past her and turns on the bathroom light, which is so bright that Gillian recoils. Zara glances down the hall to Keith, mock-jogging to collect his wife. Where were you, babe? We’re on dessert. His teeth are the colour of her blouse.

Keith –

My idea is: Nicolas if it’s a boy, and if not Carol.

Gillian feels his surface strength, as he half-carries her to the dining room. He is steaming enthusiasm. He perches her on his knee. She repeats, delayed: If not Carol?

Do you mind, honey? I’m just way too excited for this house to be full! He clinks his pint-glass with a fork. So we’ve a small announcement. We have news! she hears him say.

No no, no, Gillian wriggles on his lap.

Ow, watch my nuts.

She reaches for his wineglass.

He grabs it from her. You can’t –

She tries to whisper in his ear, but it’s not there. It’s very small, if he has one. No. I did a test, she tucks her head back to look him in the eye. She shakes her head and sees his face sag to its average level of handsomeness. So I can, she says. But she lets him keep the glass. He’d be accurate for the mashup app now, slump-shouldered, Santa-bellied, delusions of virility dashed. Finally, she finds the ear, with a little graze from where he’d over-groomed himself, and she says what he needs to hear. Then she finds his mouth with hers until Conroy calls bedtime and they are all alone.

Caoilinn Hughes’s debut novel, Orchid & the Wasp (Oneworld), won the 2019 Collyer Bristow Prize.Her second novel, The Wild Laughter (Oneworld), won the Royal Society of Literature’s Encore Award 2021. Gathering Evidence (Carcanet), won the Irish Times Shine/Strong Award in 2015. In 2018, she won The Moth Short Story Prize for her story Psychobabble. In 2019 she won an O Henry Award for her short story Prime. She won the Irish Book Awards’ Story of the Year 2020. She is the 2021 Writer Fellow at Trinity College Dublin

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