Family News, a short story by Naoise Dolan
A woman must move in with her sister and niece in this new work by the Exciting Times author
Photograph: Alex Linch/iStock/Getty
I’d thought I could safely store my vodka under a loose floorboard beside the sofa bed where I slept. But a few days after my arrival, I found the bottle depleted. I photographed it on my phone to note where the liquid stopped. The next morning, that clear line was two inches lower.
You were as well not snitching, I thought. Also, my niece seemed to dislike me and I didn’t want to make it worse.
Later that day, I saw her at the fridge. “How are you getting on, Dearbhla?” I said.
“Grand”, she said. Then, sullenly, a moment too late: “Auntie Cáit”.
I’d come to stay after my flatshare was evicted “for installations”, though all the landlord “installed” were expat tech workers who paid twice the rent. Until I found a new place in Dublin, there we were: my sister Eileen, her sixteen-year-old daughter, and me. We all looked alike, with red hair and pointed faces. Eileen and I were plain dressers, while Dearbhla liked secondhand nineties clothes that she piqued her mother by calling “vintage”. (“You’ve me in my grave, so, is it?”)
Our father had said: “Let Cáit stay for the spring”. None of us knew what I’d do when summer came.
THE FLAT WAS at the top of a Georgian terrace just north of the city centre: lofty in its day, now cold and damp. Delivery vans and junk trucks whirred below. To our left, the neighbours’ TV and laptops vented warring sounds; to our right, flatmates yelled.
“Are you comfortable, Cáit?” my mother said on the phone.
“Very”, I lied. Even the yellow walls were sickly.
“Where have they put you?”
“The couch bed, but it’s grand.”
“You know you can come here.”
“Thanks, Ma.” But I knew I’d stay where I was. I liked Dublin, however little it reciprocated.
Our parents had divorced when I was a baby, and now lived in different counties in the west of Ireland. Eileen was six years older than me. Until she got pregnant at fifteen, she’d been the one with tidy pink notebooks and her hair in a plait. Our mother had read out Eileen’s glowing school reports at the kitchen table while Eileen said, “Stop, Ma”. I said the teachers fancied her, a claim I had parroted from one of our older cousins. (“That’s no way to be talking”, Ma said.) My own reports said either “shows potential”, ie brains but no effort, or “hard worker”, ie effort but no brains.
Meanwhile, Eileen shone. The guidance counsellor told her she was bound to succeed.
To me, she had. Not many Dubliners could rent alone aged 31, and she had a decent job and a child nearly raised. But to Ma, there was another Eileen who’d stayed in school and who’d since become a million things. Our mother kept that Eileen in focus, and only saw the real one from the corner of her eye.
“It’s no place for a body, a couch”, Ma said. “It’d be doing things to the spine.”
“It’s not a couch at night. It’s a bed.”
“Folding the spine any old way, Cáit.”
“Hence ‘couch bed’.”
“Give you scoliosis. Was it your father’s idea?”
“That’s not how scoliosis works.”
“Well, was it?”
Her tone had a weariness that our father always arranged things. He kept track of where we were due to spend Christmas, and reminded us of birthdays. This smoother-over role was possible because the stakes weren’t as high for him. Unlike our mother, he had a second family now. Most of his hopes went on them.
“How long will you be there?” Ma said. Whenever I ignored one question, she asked another.
“Until I find a proper job. There’s not much going but I’m looking.”
“Well, tell them I was asking for them.”
I could already see Dearbhla scoffing. She’d ask what that even meant.
AT THE END of my first week with my sister, the authorities removed a French art deco street lantern from the street outside. Rain had eroded the concrete until it fell out in lumps, and then Dublin City Council came and took it away.
That evening the three of us watched an old Hollywood movie. The noise and flashing images allowed us to think our private thoughts without feeling exposed. Dearbhla painted her toenails, so that the polish smell covered the fusty air. Eileen texted our parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and read out a message here and there.
“I’ll miss that street lantern”, Eileen said. “The glass heads on it.”
Dearbhla rolled her eyes at me. “Ma’s gay for lamps.”
“Is it the wooden spoon you’re after?” Eileen said.
It was the first time my niece had let me in on a joke. I supposed she couldn’t be gloomy all the time.
Right before I moved in, the metro supermarket down the road had installed sprinklers to deter homeless people from sleeping outside. This cruelty drew complaints, and the business responded by planting flowers around the area so they could say they had something to water. Two doors down, a former house of flats was now a co-living complex. The old tenants must have gone somewhere: their relatives’ couches, too, perhaps. Each morning, the light filtered blue through the curtains, and I wondered what would be gone that day when I rose.
I mainly went outside for walks alone where no-one acknowledged me. The sky was white, my coat was grey, and my hands were in my pockets.
Although you had to offer Eileen money a million times before she’d take it, I gave her what I could towards bills. I was still unemployed but I earned a bit by transcribing audio files online. These were mostly US-based customer focus groups. A man detailed his hatred of sugar-free ice-cream, and I pictured him as I took down his words.
“It’s not real, this sugar-free, whatever-free”, the man said. “You ask me? It’s Christ-free. Christ as in Jesus.”
I earned four euro an hour because they paid per minute of audio transcribed, not per minute actually spent on the task. I did a lot of pausing and replaying because I wanted my record to be flawless. Perfectionism was the main trait that Eileen and I had in common, but she actively worked towards it, while I mainly avoided taking risks.
“WHAT’S IT LIKE?” Anvi said.
We’d been friends in Dublin for a few years, but she was staying with family in Delhi until she could return. My friends were all away, either elsewhere in Ireland or further afield like Anvi. I couldn’t arrange video chats in advance because I never knew what times the main room would be free. When Eileen and Dearbhla were out of sight, I made last-minute plans with whoever I could, vodka in hand. The alcohol made it easier to speak freely on a short call. Two minutes in, I felt like we’d been talking for hours.
“It’s claustrophobic here”, I said.
“I know what you mean. I’m sharing a room with my sister. She’s training as a psychoanalyst.”
“Does she have theories on you?”
“I put on fake eyelashes and she asked what this was ‘saying’.”
“Well, Anvi, what was it saying?”
“That I wanted longer eyelashes.”
We drank our drinks and talked about our other friends. Because I was only hearing about them from my laptop, they felt like a reality that I could close the lid on.
Since Eileen and Dearbhla were in their rooms, I hesitated to mention the theft issue in case they’d hear me. I told Anvi: “Hold on, I’ll text”, then sent: My niece is taking my vodka but I can’t say anything.
Anvi texted back: How old?
“Sixteen”, I said.
“How much?” – and she stopped just short of saying “vodka” aloud, but mouthed it.
I texted: I don't know, she doesn’t do it every day.
“Okay”, Anvi said, in the tone we both used when we knew the other had made their decision, and that our role was to help them justify it. “Is she sensible?”
“Very”, I said.
“So that’s fine. But what happens if Eileen finds out?”
“Marching orders. What do I do?”
“I don’t know”, Anvi said. “You’re her aunt. But I’d tell her to stop.”
I realised they’d probably overheard us.
THE NEXT EVENING I went out to get milk. I came back and opened the door to find Dearbhla crouched on the floor, easing my vodka out from its nook. It was the first time I’d caught her in the act.
I remembered Anvi’s advice.
“You’ll get me in trouble”, I said.
The miscreant shrugged, but she couldn’t look me in the eye. I seized on this sign of weakness.
“Look, Dearbhla,” I said. “I know you’ve a lot going on. God knows I did at your age. But I’ll have to tell Eileen.”
She flinched at that, then seemed to recall herself and put the brave face back on. “You will not”, she said. “Aren’t you just after saying you’d be in trouble, too?”
“We can’t go on like this, Dearbhla,” I said. I tried to sound calm but I was embarrassed by how much my voice shook, given I was talking to a schoolchild. “I know you don’t like having me here but there’s a level of cop-on.”
This seemed to put her slightly more at ease. I supposed it was a relief to have your silent grudge affirmed, even when that acknowledgement came from the very person you resented.
“Ma never asks me about anything,” Dearbhla said. “She didn’t say you were coming.”
“I’m sorry, I mean, I'll admit that’s not great of her, but could you just think about the position you’re putting me in?”
I regretted what I’d said right away, but it was too late: I could see Dearbhla hardening against me once more.
“Fuck off”, she said, and took the vodka into her room.
ON SOME NIGHTS we all sorted our own food, and maintained our separate worlds. But when Eileen cooked for the three of us, we sat at the table by the window and talked while we ate.
“There’s been bad news about Bridey”, Eileen said at dinner one evening.
“Bridey?” I said.
“Bridey down Kinlough.”
This all fit on Eileen’s scale for family news. “X’s family have had bad news” meant X had died. “There’s been bad news about X” meant X was not dead, but gravely ill. Only when the trouble was mild to moderate did Eileen say directly, “X has had bad news”. Place was coded, too. “X in Kinlough” meant X themselves was there. “X down Kinlough” was weightier: it meant that whether or not X was in Kinlough, the people who’d miss them were.
“Tell the family I was asking after them”, I said.
Dearbhla did her what-does-that-mean face yet again. She’d be wondering forever why you bothered saying things like that. I would, too, but I still said them.
There was illness going around. We were worried about our family, all of them, but you had to unload your anxiety only on people who had less of it. To relatives who heard about Bridey after us, me and Eileen were “the family” as well, and would be handled with the same delicacy, and on it went. Even Dearbhla was getting old enough to be “the family”, meaning someone whose grief there was etiquette around. At Eileen’s dinner table I felt on a different planet to the one where you could be a canned voice discussing ice-creams made by a chain of people you’d never meet.
After my sister and niece went to bed that night, the main room was pitch black besides the speckled glow of electronics. I had told Eileen weeks ago that it was wasteful to leave devices on standby, but she hadn’t listened: too much hassle plugging and unplugging, she said. Now I welcomed the dots. They were like stars. The blue and green ones protected me, but the red ones were a menace and outnumbered them. I lay there on the creaky couch bed, smelled the residue of Dearbhla’s varnish, and couldn’t sleep.
DEARBHLA WAS OUT the next evening, but Eileen was in watching television. I sat beside her in silence until there was an ad break.
“There’s something I have to tell you”, I said. I hadn’t been sure I would actually say it until the first part was out, but there was no going back now. “Dearbhla’s been taking my vodka.”
I tried to gauge Eileen’s reaction without seeming too obvious about it, but her face was blank.
“I know”, she said.
“I’ve seen where you hide it and I’ve heard her loosening the floorboard.”
This made sense with the size of the flat. I supposed I was only surprised because I saw Eileen as having full control of everything. I waited for her to scold me, but she seemed to be reflecting on something.
“There are so many things for Dearbhla to be worrying about,” she said, less to me than to herself. “There’s the news, there’s family, there’s money and bills. There’s how hot it is.”
“I don’t know if she’s worried about that.”
“You don’t know her well, Cáit”, she said with sudden sternness. “She’s embarrassed to say it but she worries about all sorts. Anyway, I think when you give someone a small thing to worry about, you’re doing them a kindness. How to sneak around you, how to make sure I don’t find out – I’d rather that on her mind than the other stuff. As long as she’s not taking too much.”
“Maybe a naggin a week. I haven’t the money to be keeping her in serious quantities. Are you sorry I told you?”
“I don’t know, Cáit”, she said. “I feel I’m losing her already sometimes.”
“Look, from what Dearbhla’s told me” – I realised I was implying she’d confided more than she had – “it’s just that you don’t consult her enough”.
“Consult her? About what?”
“Me staying, for example.”
“I couldn’t go ‘consulting’ her and her saying no and me still having you here.”
This made me happy: hearing, in a roundabout way, that my sister would never have considered saying I couldn’t come. I wondered if she wanted me to steer away from the heavy stuff. “We don’t need to get psychoanalytical about it,” I said. “Maybe she just likes getting pissed.”
“I’ll talk to her about it,” Eileen said. “Maybe.”
“I remember you and her in hospital,” I said. I wanted to say something nice.
“You can’t remember that.”
“You weren’t there.”
“I remember it.”
“No, you don’t,” Eileen said, not unkindly. “Look, do you remember Anne Clancy down the road? Ma’s age, but no children. She stopped speaking to me after I got pregnant. Ma goes: ‘She’s been trying for years. It’s only envy.’ I went to live with Gran soon after that and Ma was convinced it was about that Clancy woman when it wasn’t at all. It was that I knew Ma’s judgement would grind away at me, but Gran’s I could manage. I went along with Ma’s story of it, but then she wouldn’t bring you to the hospital when I had Dearbhla. She took a notion thatDearbhla would die and she didn’t want it ‘affecting’ you.”
I had no idea what to do with any of that.
“Did she have any reason to think that?” I said.
“None. She tells herself these stories.”
I didn’t want to lose my vision of going to see the newborn Dearbhla, but I felt it slipping from me. It seemed best not to probe my sister on what she’d said in case I deprived her in the same manner of her relics.
“We’re not great talkers, are we?” Eileen said. “The family.”
“Not this branch”, I said.
Naoise Dolan is the author of the acclaimed bestseller Exciting Times, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson