by Ciarán Howley (age 17, Balbriggan, Co Dublin)
You have the right to privacy.
Mary switched on the reading lamp in the study. The light flickered for a moment, disappeared, and then shuddered into life with a sleepy electric hum. She ran her fingers down the coarse, rusted callouses of the spine. It was old, not as old as her, but not far off. An antique. Her daughter urged her to sell it but Mary could never do that.
Mary admired it. How it clung to life even though it was outdated, even though it was worse for wear and even though the man who’d once used it was 10 years in his grave.
“Mam, I’m headed!”
Mary pottered into the kitchen where her daughter Kate stood in heels and an above the knee high dress. Her 15-year-old grandson Ethan was sitting at her kitchen table glued to his tablet as per usual.
“Don’t give me that look,” Kate said, flattening the dress down.
Mary raised her hands to high heaven, shaking her head wearily. Kate wasn’t a pimple-faced, precocious teenager anymore who could be told how to dress. She was still, however, just as thankless and her romantic ventures were just as tumultuous.
And really that dress . . .
“Whatcha reading there?”
Mary’s grandson Ethan looked up from his tablet at her. “An article about the military coup of an oppressive regime in the Middle East,” he said flatly.
Mary turned to Kate. “You let him read about that?”
“He has a right,” Kate said. “To expand his mind.”
“He’s 15!” Mary reminded her. “Now, are you sussed for a taxi? The number’s in my address book if-”
“It’s fine, I’ll Google it.”
Mary pursed her lips. It irked her that nothing was done anymore through what Kate referred to as ‘the old ways’. Mary was from a generation that watched an episode of a show in a week rather than a whole series in a day. If you wanted to talk to someone you met for lunch, you didn’t text or Skype. Books were read on the printed page rather than on machines, like the Kindle that had been forced upon her last Christmas by Kate that she’d shoved in a drawer to rot for all eternity.
Mary’s friends scolded her so-called secluded lifestyle. They were all in the know and always up to date on the newest hair, the trendiest fashions, the latest human rights violations and everything else Mary was ignorant of. They regarded Mary as a social hangnail, a technological pariah. So she didn’t want to spend her life staring at a screen! Why was that a bad thing?
Kate heard the crunch of gravel under tyres and stumbled out the door with a succinct, “Bye!”
The two were alone.
Mary turned to Ethan. “Do you want something to eat?”
Ethan had a massive headset on, shielded from his nanny’s incessant bleating. Mary asked again. And again. And-
“What?” he said impatiently.
Mary glowered. “Would you ever turn that yoke off.”
“It’s an iPad.”
“It’s a nuisance,” Mary said. “Let’s do something fun. The TV Guide’s in the sitting room, we could see what tonight’s Big Big Movie is or we could do some baking or-”
“Um . . . No,” Ethan said, implying he couldn’t possibly have fun with Mary.
For the first time, Mary saw herself through the eyes of her grandson. Crazy, boring old granny who always smells like mothballs and Werther’s. A relic, a dinosaur, a fossil. Dull.
Mary and Ethan had never gotten on. Kate and Mary weren’t the closest and she only saw him when Kate was stuck for a babysitter.
Like tonight. As well, Ethan was part of a new wave of kids who were born with a device in their hands and were always finding out things. Mary knew what she knew and liked what she liked. Ethan’s way of life threatened hers.
“Can I see Grandad’s study?” Ethan asked suddenly.
The room had been off limits since Paul had died. Mary hadn’t even let Kate inside. Paul had passed on long before Ethan was around but her husband still lingered in conversation and Ethan had picked up on it. Mary always steered him from the room whenever his gaze steered towards it.
“Why exactly?” Mary asked.
Ethan gave an honest shrug.
“You can,” she said. “Only if you turn off that iPad. And you’re extremely careful.”
So Mary showed him the room where she spent most of her waking hours. If the mood took her, she slept there. His death had never left her. She lived that moment every day, in a constant loop. It had been so real, too real. One moment, he was in the supermarket comparing bags of lettuce, the next he was on the floor, cold, eyes pale and vacant like two full moons.
Ethan put the tablet on the floor and explored the room, eyes wide with curiosity. They were like Paul’s. His fingers caressed the leather-bound volumes on the shelves, he frantically stabbed at the typewriter and flicked through piles of notes and stacks of parchments.
“That’s what he was working on before he died,” Mary explained. “It was a book about cruel people who told lies to make themselves look better.”
“Propaganda?” Ethan said.
Mary nodded. Of course he knew what it was.
As he went through the notes, she was about to ask him to be careful when his elbow jerked to his right, striking the electric reading lamp clean off the table where it landed on the floor with a fateful crack.
Mary dashed past Ethan and landed on her knees beside the remains of the lamp. Her hands cupped the cracked shade and the bent spine as tears streamed swiftly down her face. Ethan, peeking over her head, asked her if it was broken.
Mary wiped her eyes and stifled the sobs. She surprised Ethan, surprised herself, when she said: “It’s only a lamp.” She gave him a lukewarm smile.
Mary had decided it was time to let go of the past, the things that kept her there and focus on what was in front of her. Her daughter and her grandson. Paul was gone and that would always hurt but she couldn’t change it.
Though, as the two stayed up half the night talking and reading and laughing, Mary and even Ethan agreed that sometimes the old ways were the best.
You have the right to privacy