Standing in the swimwear section of TK Maxx, clicking through hangers with skimpy strings destined for other bodies, I feel like a fraud on a number of levels. I’ve never stood here before. It’s a freezing morning in early February. We’re not going to get there anyway. A woman cuts in beside me and clicks with an easy efficiency. I mimic her. Grab something and sling it into the basket. I’ll not do myself the disservice of trying it on. Winter flesh under a fluorescent light in front of an enormous mirror. What I don’t know won’t hurt me. I’ll be returning it soon anyway.
‘Can we get some bright colours Mum’, marque 5, a committed wearer of all black, asks, his hands on a pair of neon green swim shorts, then plucking a luminous yellow t-shirt from the rack.
‘Bright colours would feel like a real holiday’, he says and I run with it. I’ve brought them along to choose a few ‘summer’ bits and they take me at my word, Hawaiian style shirts are waved at me, cut price designer sunglasses are tried on. Who’s going to tell them that we’re not actually going to make it?
Six negative PCRs are called for to get us out of here and over to their Dad in Dubai. With mad Covid circulation and everything fully reopened, with the boys in school and college and daily accounts of friends and contacts coming a-cropper I wonder how fair any of this is. To dangle this carrot when the odds are firmly stacked against us.
They begin to reduce, to cancel, to pull out of things, and they squabble mightily when Marque 2 doesn’t think he can cancel a weekend away in Belfast, planned some weeks ago as a compensation when Covid made it clear they could no longer make it over to see their pal in Amsterdam. It would affect the others adversely if he were to pull out. But one of the group has been a close contact in recent days.
‘Putting the family at risk, the first ever holiday abroad in jeopardy’, is the line being touted as I hide quietly in the corner. Where do they get such thoughts from?
‘Mum hasn’t been abroad on a holiday in 22 years, are you seriously going to risk that for her, when it’s her birthday and everything?’ Now that does sound bad, even to me. What was I thinking? I do some calculations. 22.5 actually I try not to say out loud. When guilt tripping doesn’t seem to be working, they move on to bribery. They’ll refund his ticket and accommodation and pay him not to go. Hell, they’ll refund his pals too. It’s all getting a little out of hand. A parent needs to step in. But the parent is wiped out, standing on eggshells in no-man’s land, no clue which way to turn.
Three, two, one…
‘Stop. Nobody’s paying anybody anything. Let’s see if your pal continues to test negative on the antigens. If you decide to go, then you should all take tests beforehand and each day, yeah?’ A clear authoritative voice summoned out of the depths of the parenting tool-bag. Phew.
‘Yes, and I’ll isolate in my room when I get back’.
There. Sorted. I want him to go and I don’t want him to go. They’ve missed out on so much, lived with such fear and anxiety these last couple of years, he deserves to have fun with his pals. If he cancels and lets them down, he’ll carry that guilt and disappointment. I know. I’ve been there. But if he comes a-cropper too, and thwarts the holiday he’ll never forgive himself.
‘And if anyone in the family gets it, it’s not their fault. We’ll cancel and go some other time’, I say, continuing in the authoritative vein, throwing in a bit of stoicism for good measure. Should’ve tried this years ago.
Buoyed up by my new powers over the next few days, I actively encourage them to skip school and college and I cancel a long planned dinner night out with a pal to demonstrate my absolute commitment too.
Marque 1 is project managing this event. He bulk books the PCRs for a pretty penny and tells us what we need to bring along – passports for example. There’s a little bit of fear dancing in the eyes of all as we queue, wondering in this lottery which one it will be, who the sword will fall on. But once we’ve been prodded, poked and swirled, we feel a weight has been lifted. There’s nothing more we can do. Our fate is sealed. We don’t know the answer yet, but we celebrate anyway, stopping off at the garage for some sugar treats on the way home. One last cancellation to break to someone though.
‘I’m sorry but you can’t go to the rugby match tomorrow’. This is a tough one. I won’t look at him. A dream for marque 5 to travel on a bus with his team to play against a school in Kilkenny. A first match away. The fun of the bus. The love of the sport. The camaraderie. We’re all in agreement though. A big Covid risk, an injury risk. When it’s over the line, almost.
Marque 1 sleeps not a jot. The results are coming to him. He checks through the night. Screenshots and circulates on the group chat when they arrive early morning.
‘Wait, we’re going? We’re actually going?’
We look at one another with fresh eyes, no longer suspicious, doubting. Heroes, we think now. We all did our bit.
The storms are coming. Ah, right. It’s not Covid but the weather that will stop us. Windows rattle in old frames throughout the night. Extreme weather warnings are issued. Storms with peculiarly menacing names. Blizzards. Hazards. We stick our fingers in our ears and continue on, acting as if we’ll actually make it now. We go en masse to Howth to leave the dog with the lady we got him from. She greets us warmly and calls two other gorgeous Papillons of hers to play with him. One of them happens to be his mother. She barks at him, not in an entirely loving way, putting him in his place, giving out to him for abandoning her. I get it. He’s five now. She’s getting on. She needs her sons around her. It’s the first real time we’re abandoning him too. There’s a collective low thrumming nausea. We decide to recover down at the harbour with a massive feed from Leo Burdock’s. A bitter wind whips at our faces, stinging our salt and vinegar lips. Seagulls screech above us.