From now on

 

A short story by BELINDA MCKEON

ON CHRISTMAS EVE, Claire walks, unannounced, into her mother’s kitchen and on her mother’s face she thinks she sees three different things: shock at Claire’s arrival, concern for the state of Claire’s marriage, and a rapid reworking of sleeping arrangements.

On all three counts, she is wrong. Margaret has in fact expected Claire all day, despite Claire’s intention, frequently declared over these past weeks, to spend her first married Christmas in her own home, cooking her own turkey, making her own traditions. And neither does Margaret think for a second that Claire has arrived without James, her very serious husband, who will no doubt look even more serious now that he’s lost his job; Claire goes nowhere without James, even if that means that James has to drive from Dublin to Longford in snow so heavy and roads so treacherous that the guards have been on the radio all day telling people not to go above 10 miles an hour. As for the sleeping arrangements, Margaret has four grown children – plus accessories – in this house for Christmas now, and she has enough on her mind worrying about just one of them, let alone the whole clatter, and where they all bed down, she has already decided, is their own concern.

But she rushes to her middle daughter, all the same, and she hugs her in glad welcome, and she strokes her long brown hair and she admires her new coat, and she says what a wonderful surprise this is, and then she studies her face with the expected concern. “James is with you, isn’t he?”

“Has he left you already?” Claire’s older sister, Elaine, calls from the kitchen table, where she is feeding lunch to her two-year-old.

“Hello to you too,” Claire says to Elaine – who, she notices, is looking even more wrecked than the last time she saw her. Elaine and Claire live less than half an hour apart in Dublin, but it is only when they are both down home that they actually speak. The baby, the unfriendliest baby Claire has ever met, glares out from under her dark fringe.

“Hello, Gracie,” Claire says, in an attempt at a coo. The child buries her face in her mother’s chest with an indignant wail.

“Oh, God’s sake, Grace,” Elaine sighs, looking at Claire. “I thought you weren’t coming back until Stephens’s Day? I just got here myself and I already have to give up the guest room?”

“Well, maybe Eamon can go in with Maeve and then James and I can take his room instead,” Claire says, looking to her mother, but Margaret keeps her eyes on the ball of pastry she has gone back to kneading.

“I can’t believe ye came down on those roads,” Elaine says. “Ye must be mad.”

“We just thought,” Claire says, again addressing her mother, “that by Stephens’s Day it might only be worse. We thought it was better to come down today.”

“You’re dead right,” says Margaret, who knows that this is not the reason; who knows that Claire woke up in her house in Phibsboro this morning and realised that she did not want to cook her own turkey and that she did not know how to make stuffing and that she wanted to spend Christmas Eve in the house she grew up in, and to act like she was a child again – which every one of Margaret’s children, in exact proportion to their actual distance from childhood, seems to want, suddenly, to do.

“And we wanted it to be a surprise,” Claire says, unconvincingly, and Elaine snorts, which is Margaret’s cue to give Elaine a look that tells her to watch her step. Elaine rolls her eyes.

“You haven’t heard from Eamon, by any chance?” she says to Claire.

Claire shakes her head. “Why do you ask?”

“He’s awol,” Elaine says, and loudly, their mother sighs.

“He is not awol, Elaine,” Margaret says, and she takes up the lump of pastry and slams it on to the worktop like something she is trying to break. “Eamon is a grown man and he can go where he likes. But he’s living back in this house now and I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect him to answer his phone. I mean, what if I want him to pick something up for me in town?”

“James and I could have picked something up for you in town, if you’d phoned and asked us,” Claire says, and Elaine gives her a look that says she is an idiot.

‘HE’S BEING A dose,” Elaine says in the guest room.

Claire is neatly unpacking her suitcase, and Elaine is messily repacking hers, so that she can move herself and Grace in with Maeve.

“Wait till you see him,” she says, snatching clothes up from the bed. “I suppose he’s depressed. Mam and Dad are worried sick. But you’d think he was the only f**ker in the country to be out of a job. I mean, right, he’s under stress. But we’re all under stress. I’m only getting half the hours I was getting this time last year. At least Eamon has the dole. He doesn’t have to make life a misery for everyone around him. Does James do that?”

“God, no,” says Claire, who is only half-listening to Elaine now, who will only allow herself to half-listen, because she came here today to get away from these kinds of questions. Out the bedroom window, she can see her husband and her father talking. Or rather, her father is talking, and her husband is listening, or not listening, and staring at the ground like he does now, most of the time, when Claire talks to him.

He is preoccupied, she knows that; she has to allow him to be preoccupied. But it is constant. And it is lonely. And Claire is here because she could not take a Christmas Eve and a Christmas Day with James slouched in their sittingroom on his laptop, talking to people on internet forums as though they were his friends.

“Will we go over to see Kate tonight?” she says and Elaine makes a reluctant noise. Kate is their parents’ nearest neighbour, now in her 80s. When they were children, Elaine and Claire and Eamon and Maeve viewed her as a cross between a grandmother and a playmate, and until lately – until they were too busy being pregnant, or engaged, or watching the Christmas episode of Father Ted – the girls had always gone over to visit her on Christmas Eve. They sat in Kate’s overheated front room, by her big turf fire, and drank tea and ate cream crackers with cheddar cheese and watched television – actually, usually Father Ted – and talked about college, or about work, or about school, or about whatever was happening in their lives.

Whatever was happening in Kate’s life seemed always, reassuringly, to be the same; she walked or cycled everywhere, and she read the papers, and she watched the tennis during the summer and the soccer during the winter, and she talked about the royals and she sat with her freckled hands clasped over her knees and she laughed like a girl.

“Let’s go to see her,” Claire says, and Elaine hesitates. She loves Kate, too, and she feels bad that they have stopped the Christmas Eve visit but she does not feel like explaining to Kate why she is no longer with Grace’s father, as she is sure she will be called upon to do.

“The snow,” she says, weakly.

“We’re going,” Claire says, and through the window she watches her father watching James as he walks away.

WINTER FODDERING IS hard enough anyway, but in this weather, with the river in ice and the cattle huddled far from the troughs, it is work that Brendan can barely do alone, and he came very close, today, to asking Claire’s James to pull on a pair of wellingtons and walk with him down the lower fields. But he couldn’t do that – the lad is Dublin, through and through, and would probably fall straight into a drain, and Claire would go into a huff with Brendan, and Brendan is so glad to see her home for the Christmas that he intends to do nothing to annoy her.

And so he is not going to ask her husband for help on the farm, and he is not, either, going to say anything to her – at least not today – about the poor shape her husband looks to be in, about the weight he has lost, about the glint of something wild and panicky in his eyes.

Brendan knows what the trouble is, because he has seen the same thing every day for months now with his own son, and Brendan said to James today the same thing that he has been saying all along to Eamon: that you have to keep busy, have to find something to tip around at – that he thought, himself, he’d never get used to not going into work, but you do, you adapt. Eamon just shakes his head when Brendan says this. Eamon says that retirement is not the same thing at all.

And this morning Eamon went tearing down that lane like a rally driver on a dare, and Brendan knows that Margaret was lying when she said that Eamon texted one of his sisters to say he was in town, and would be back before long. But Brendan has been married to Margaret for 34 years, and he knows when it is best just to let the other person lie, and to hope and hope, along with them, that the lie will come true. Brendan shakes off his wellingtons and walks in the back door to the kitchen where the child, Elaine’s child, is playing with her bits and pieces on the floor.

GRACE LOOKS UP at her grandfather, and she watches as he lifts the small Lego bear. He smells, today, of the cows outside, and of the shed, and of the soap on her grandmother’s sink. He is in here looking for someone else, Grace knows, but while he is here he is going to talk to her, and that makes her glad. And so when he asks her whether this is the man who drives her wee bus, Grace smiles at him, and she shakes her head, and she lifts up her hand to show him that she wants to take the bear from him, because she does not want him to play with the bus and the people in the wrong way.

AT DINNER LATER, MAEVE is thinking about the outfit she is going to wear to Spiral on St Stephens’s night, and about how she wishes she was spending Christmas with her housemates instead of at home, and about how she wishes that Eamon would tell somebody else in the family what he has already told her, when she goes to take a sip of the wine that Claire poured for her. From beside her, her mother snatches the glass away like it is poisoned, and spills wine all over Maeve’s plate. Everyone stares.

Maeve’s father looks scared. Maeve cries out in protest. “I’m 18!”

“I don’t care,” her mother shakes her head. “I don’t want you drinking in the house.” From across the table, one of Maeve’s sisters snorts. It is Elaine, of course. Only Elaine would snort. “You’d prefer her drinking outside the house?” Elaine says. “Christ’s sake, Mam.”

“I’m sorry, Maeve,” her mother says, after a moment of silence. “I’m sorry, pet.” She reaches for the bottle and makes a shaky attempt to refill the glass. “I’m just, that bloody brother of yours,” she says, and she puts her head in her hands.

“Margaret,” says Maeve’s father, and he looks around at his daughters, appealing.

“Mam, you’re completely overreacting,” says Claire, and she finds herself holding her breath as she waits for a reply.

“Maeve,” Margaret says in a ragged voice. “Did Eamon say anything to you this morning?” “About what?” says Maeve, who feels sufficiently victimised, and sufficiently validated by the reactions of her sisters, to let a good kick of insolence into her voice.

“Did he tell you,” Margaret snaps, “where he was going in the car?” And because Margaret snaps, and because as she snaps her face looks older, suddenly, than Maeve ever wants her mother’s face to be, and because Maeve wants this conversation not to be happening, because she wants this evening to be about the usual messing and joking that Christmas Eve has always been about when her brother and her sisters are home, Maeve just shrugs, and she says, “Into the Shannon, for all I know.”

It is the kind of joke that Eamon, especially, would appreciate; the kind of joke that would have Eamon roaring with laughter, and then she notices that it seems as though all the air has been sucked out of the room, and that the faces around her are like faces of people she has never met before.

“How could you say that, Maeve?” her father almost whispers.

“It was a joke,” Maeve says. “For Christ’s sake, it was a joke!” But nobody is laughing. And later, when the Father Ted Christmas special is on, they are still not laughing. So when Maeve’s sisters announce that they are driving over the road to visit Kate, Maeve says she wants to go with them, because she will do anything to get out of this house.

‘AH, ARE YE HOME for the Christmas,” Kate says, when she opens the front door. “And Mum and Dad must be thrilled to the world.

“And ye’re frozen,” she observes, as she leads them into the room and gets them all sitting in front of the fire. “I’m just here watching something about William and Kate,” she says, and she laughs at how Maeve is confused, and thinks that Kate is referring to herself.

“Won’t the pressure be fairly on that lassie now, this year coming,” she says, and the girls just nod.

And after she has asked about Elaine’s baby, who still has no father, and after Claire’s husband, who apparently is back in the house reading, as though there were nothing better to do on Christmas Eve, and after she has said what has to be said about the weather and the economy and the business with the euro, Kate gives them their cups of tea and their plate with a slice of cracker or a mince pie on it, to pick at or to ignore. And then Kate can get around to doing what it is she needs to do. She has known these girls and their brother since they were babies, and she has known their father since he was a young lad with a cowlick, and she knows exactly how they talk to each other and how, from each other, they hide.

“And isn’t it a sight to the world, about Eamon heading off with himself,” she says, and she winks at Maeve, because she knows that Maeve knows, and she sees from Maeve’s face, as she has seen so many times before, what a gentle and intelligent child she is. She is trying now, with her eyes, to protect her sisters, but they do not need to be protected. Kate shakes her head and smiles over to Claire and Elaine. “Were you ever in Australia yourself, girls?”

Elaine looks at Claire, and Claire looks at Elaine, and Kate can see that they think she has early Alzheimer’s, or something like that, but she has a job to do, and she pushes on. Eamon has been coming here every day for the last month, clearing her paths and bringing in her groceries, and making sure she has turf and sticks enough for the fire, and this, she knows, is how she must return the favour.

“And won’t Mum and Dad be lost without him,” she says, “but you know, he has to do what he has to do. And he’ll have to tell them that soon. Sure he’ll have the new year on top of him before he knows it, and after that, February is only a couple of weeks away.”

“February?” say Claire and Elaine in unison, and Kate just nods, and looks at the hearth, and watches, as she watches every night, how the turf shrivels and falls.

“And it was this night two years ago, imagine, that the fire was just starting in the cathedral ‘ithin in Longford,” she says. “Wasn’t it a sight the way it went up. Sure if you were trying to light the fire there of a morning, you wouldn’t get it to go up half as fast.” She smiles her smile again, as though she is remembering a birth. “And isn’t life awful strange.”

‘I DON’T F**KING believe this,” says Elaine again, as she gets behind the wheel, and she says the same thing as she drives out of Kate’s gateway and on to the main road, and she says the same thing, though in a much more high-pitched tone, when they hit the black ice that their father has been warning them about all day, and the car – a shitty car, a car Eamon warned her would not stand up to any trouble – slides around on the road like a knife going through butter, with them all shrieking and swearing and praying inside it, and it slides, then, into the ditch – slowly, steadily, almost elegantly – and they sit there realising that nothing bad has happened and that nobody has been hurt.

And that they have to walk home, which is not really any distance, but the snow is shin-deep, and it is freezing so hard that every touch of the wind makes them gasp, and only for the moon, they would be in such darkness that they would not know which way to go.

Then they hear a car coming from behind them, from Kenagh, and they step well into the verge, even though the car is clearly moving so carefully on the ice that they would probably be alright on the road. They turn towards it, and when eventually the car reaches them, its headlights blind them, and its horn sounds in two sharp, demanding blasts.

“Jesus, does he want us to get into the ditch?” Elaine says, enraged. “We’re in as far as we can go!” she roars at the car.

The headlights dim, and they flash. The passenger door is flung open.

“I told you not to buy that bloody Renault,” their brother’s voice says.

“Frigg off to Australia!” Elaine shouts, but she is slipping and sliding her way towards the car with the other two.

Maeve gets into the passenger seat, while Claire and Elaine bundle, cursing and shivering, into the back. “I didn’t tell them,” Maeve says to Eamon before she has even closed the door.

“I know you didn’t, Maevie,” Eamon says softly.

“You devious f**ker!” Elaine shouts. “Why couldn’t you tell me?”

“I was going to tell all of you,” Eamon says, as he lets the handbrake down, and moves carefully off. “I was going to tell you as soon as Claire arrived.”

“Well, I’m here,” Claire says, in a sullen voice.

“You’re early,” Eamon says.

“It isn’t a race, is it?”

“Do you have a job out there?” Elaine says, leaning forward so much that it cannot be safe.

“Put your belt on, Elaine,” Claire says, but Elaine shakes her off.

“Do you have a visa?” she says.

“I’m working on it,” Eamon says, as he coasts the car towards the lane for home. “I’m hoping Santy might leave me one this evening.”

“I don’t believe this,” Elaine says, as she meets his eyes in the mirror, and she starts to cry. Claire takes her hand and squeezes it a moment, but it is too cold to hold.

“Ah, come on, now,” says Eamon, and to his dismay he sees that beside him, Maeve has tears on her cheeks too, though she is being quieter about it than Elaine. “Ah, come on,” he says, and he wills his own voice to keep steady. “You’re not the one has to pack up and go off the other side of the world.”

“You’re not the one has to stay here!” Elaine says, in a sob.

CLAIRE THINKS THAT she should cry as well, but the tears will not come.

She thinks of James, and of the look he has in his eyes when she comes in every evening from work, and she thinks that this might do it, but it does not.

She wants the car not to reach the house; she wants not to see the front porch; she wants not to see the light in the hall coming on, as it does now, and her mother standing there.

“We’re rumbled,” Eamon says, and again – cheekily, almost jauntily – he blows the horn.

A MINUTE AGO, Margaret, standing at the sittingroom window, saw the headlights making a turn from the main road on to the lane, and she stepped out into the hall. Now, as she sees that the car is Eamon’s and not Elaine’s, she steps from the porch out on to the snow. She is not wearing the shoes for this, but nothing could matter less at this moment.

“Ho, ho, ho,” Eamon is calling, as he comes towards her, the three girls straggling behind him, and though Margaret lets him hug her, and is glad of it, she pulls away before he can think that he is fully off the hook.

“I’ll bloody well kill you,” she says, and she shivers. “Did you ever hear of such a thing as answering your mobile phone?”

“Sure, you’re always at me not to be on my mobile when I’m driving,” says Eamon, and he moves as though he is going to hug her again, but she swats him away. She looks up. The stars are almost unbearably perfect, and the air that is holding them so still and so carefully is – no almost about it – unbearably cold.

“My God,” she says, and for some reason the doorway of a shop in Longford comes into her mind. She was sure she saw someone crouched down in that doorway a couple of nights ago, as Brendan drove through the town on their way to visit Margaret’s sister in Bal. And though she knows he could have been up to no good, whoever he was, she knows, too, that the likelihood is that he just had nowhere else to go. And the snow will not have brought it to him, whatever it is he needs. The snow will not have eased his way.

“My God,” she says again, “Imagine being out on that night.”

“We are out in it,” moans Elaine from behind her.

“You were out in it,” Margaret says, and she links arms with her children – two of them, some of them, she doesn’t even know which ones – and she leads them to the light of her precious hall.

Belinda McKeon’s novel Solace was published in July by Picador. It was named Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year