In the build up I wondered if it was possible at all. The whole Christmas thing. How do people string this together in the middle of a pandemic? I hovered, masked up, in early morning aisles watching stretched and stressed people grabbing things. Little out of body moments, worried for those around me. Complete strangers. How do you do this? I was struck by the red raw hands of a woman in Penny’s. On bended knees. Grabbing at something as if her life depended on it. Ah god I thought. This is nuts. Dangerous and nuts. Someone give her a pass. Someone give us all a pass.
It was not without a dollop of guilt then that I discovered we had the best Christmas ever. Simplified. Pared back. No socialising. No expectations. The significant other person had sailed home to join us. Anything after that was a bonus. Excellent news, as it happens, accompanied him in the door. I was taking a phone call that could prove to be a life changer. A long term project is finished and set to fly. There was a dream like quality to his return. Even if a wave from the corner of the sitting room wasn’t quite what we had envisaged as the moment of his homecoming greeting.
Champagne. Long cold walks holding warm hands.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt so completely fulfilled on Christmas day’, marque 3 told me.
‘All of my wishes came true’, marque 4 chimed in. So it wasn’t just me imagining it. Simple wishes. Less is more. There was a touch of magic to it all. When it came to New Year’s Day it didn’t even strike me to make a resolution. This is it. The appreciating of the here and now. The not looking ahead at all. It’s a gift of the pandemic. One day at a time. With the people you love held close and tight. If you’re lucky.
The numbers soar. The daily guesses we make could be out by thousands. The dread seeps in as the danger all around us grows. We come to a rational decision. Leave the emotions aside. He should head back a week early. Get the hell out of here. Get the vaccine. He can get it almost immediately where he works. It’s a no-brainer. When you park the emotions.
We arrive back after an evening walk a couple of days before he’s due to go. There’s a phone call from my sister. We are catapulted into another realm.
Her best friend, long term loyal companion, soul mate and our dear brother-like family friend has died suddenly. It’s gut wrenchingly shocking. He’s a GP. He’s always looking after everyone else. He’s worried sick about the pandemic. What he’s seeing. What he’s hearing on the phone. What he’s referring. It’s a lot worse than we think. He’s very critical of the Government’s moves. He was saying all along that there should not be an opening up for Christmas. That nothing along those lines should even be looked at until February. They had a two hour chat on the Saturday night. A great chat, full of laughter and love. Her birthday was in a few days. He counselled her to do nothing. To just relax. To stay indoors and see no one at all. This thing is rampaging out there. If you stay in for the next couple of weeks, let no-one into your home, go to no-one’s home, you’ll be fine. He was desperate to keep everyone safe. On the Sunday night he wasn’t feeling well. He phoned his receptionist to say he wouldn’t be in the next day. He was coughing. He said he thought he might have Covid. He died a few hours later. At home, alone. A swab test confirmed he had Covid. He was a-symptomatic until a few hours before his death. He was not in an at risk category. He was healthy. He was a front line worker. He is a casualty of this war. Systemic errors cannot be discounted in his shocking and untimely loss.
A few things about him, our brotherly old pal. He was fiercely loyal, kind, generous and caring – to his family, many friends, classmates, patients, our family and beyond. He was quick witted with an easy ready smile, a great laugh, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He always wanted to hear the latest. He was always highly amused by whatever the latest was. He was great fun. He wanted the best for the people he cared about and delighted in their small wins. He had pet names for everyone. He swept the streets of London with my sister when they were medical students. He saved her life when she had bacterial meningitis. In the 90s we travelled with a group to Cuba. Out on a rooftop in Havana we shot the breeze about what life had in store for us. He guessed for me. I guessed for him. We were bang on, give or take. He had a great Christmas Day. He kept saying how lucky he felt he was. He was warm, funny, solid, determined, dependable, resolute and yet vulnerable in a way too. He brought out a protective streak in the people who cared about him as he was too kind for his own good at times. There was a selflessness to him. His needs were simple, straightforward, sidelined. It was the needs of others that interested him. He was noble.
If he could see us now, all so deeply upset at his passing he would tilt his head to the side in the way that he does, and nod and smile, eyes twinkling, amused. There’s one hell of a conversation to be had about the latest.
It’s an hour after the Late Late Toy Show. A highlight in our calendar. I’m in bed, conked. There’s a knock on my door.
‘Mum, can I come in to talk to you?’
Since he’s been gone, nine weeks but who’s counting, there have been many changes. One is the embracing of the talks. The bedroom door is unlocked. There’s no real need for privacy any more, now is there? In they come one after the other to chat and see the dog who’s stuck to me. But they don’t wake me for a talk. They’re taking care of me. Not pushing beyond the reasonable.
‘Yeah so Mum, I have this stabbing pain, down here on the right’, marque 3 announces.
He’s accompanied by his older brothers. They have him diagnosed and on the way to a solution.
‘Right where the appendix is Mum’, marque 2 adds.
‘Will I call an ambulance?’ Marque 1 asks. The room begins to come into focus. I squint at marque 1.
‘A what now?’
‘An ambulance mum, it can be serious, you know, if it ruptures’.
They’re all staring down at me, trying to elicit a response. I cast my mind back to the evening. To the pizza, the Prosecco, the hot chocolate, the mince pies. To how they said they missed their father watching the show. Missed how they could have a great laugh with him when the kids are super precocious or too sad to handle. Missed how they could have jokes that would be otherwise frowned upon. How they hadn’t necessarily enjoyed being told to be quiet as they tried to get the jokes rolling, looking across at their mother with tears spilling into her Prosecco as she melted watching the gorgeous little boy with the brittle bones, the beautiful girl with her lost leg, the family of great readers who whooped for joy at the idea of a gift of endless books for a year.
How did we go from that to this? A little dramatic, don’t you think, I say to myself as the pillow lays bare beside me.
‘Take some painkillers and we’ll see how you get on’, is all I can come up with.
‘Wake me in the night if you need me’, I hear someone else say. Thank god for someone else. Marque 1.
The guilt kicks in a little. I’m up checking on him every so often. The pain which was at 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, reduces to a reassuring 6. Roll on the weekend.
But there’s no appetite. There’s a hell of a lot of dozing off. There are unsubtle hints from marque 2. He selects song mode for his voice to temper me.
‘You really need to do this, get him seen, something has to come out’.
A phone call to a nurse. A trip to nearest A&E. He’s quizzed and prodded. Bloods are drawn. Conclusions are thin on the ground. It might be the appendix. But then again, it might not. Hang on a second, is this a hospital we’re in? That’s like listening to myself in an echo chamber. I stare at him, this young doctor who smiles broadly – like one of those men on a bottle of hair dye, dazzling white teeth and twinkling eyes – and I don’t probe. What the hell do you mean it might be I want to say, but do not.
‘I’m not convinced’, he says.
You’re not what now? I look at my pale boy clutching his side, clearly in pain. Is it his job to convince you?
‘If it’s the appendix it will announce itself. If it does, you know if the symptoms get worse, go to the children’s hospital. They can give you an ultrasound to determine’.
Wait, what? Aren’t we in a hospital? Can’t you do that?
‘We don’t have an ultrasound scanner here – and he’s younger than what I usually deal with. So, yeah, the children’s hospital if it gets worse’.
I try not to think of the €100 I paid to get this excellent advice. Still, I tell myself, he’s a doctor. We’ve been thoroughly checked. Home. Saturday night. An episode of The Queen’s Gambit. Diet Coke. Yay.
Sunday evening. It’s getting worse. My sister, also a doctor – and in our social bubble – calls by to check him. I’m upstairs in the bedroom chatting to someone an eight hour plane ride away. The door is locked. We’re planning his great return. There’s knocking. The knocking doesn’t stop. Three of them come in and lay it bare for me. We juggle with the logistics. If we go in tonight, who will get marque 5 to school and to to his dental appointment in the morning? Still, if we go in tonight we could be home in a few hours with the appendix ruled out by ultrasound. Let’s do it.
We catapult ourselves back ten, twelve years. Sitting in the familiar waiting room from when they were smallies. It hasn’t changed. What has changed is that he’s six feet tall and looks somewhat out of place amongst the crying babies and toddlers. The cold night air whips in the open windows. A Covid ventilation system.
People stare at us, blank bored stares. I’m reading. He’s dozing. In between we chat. We are not a good fit for this place the stares seem to say. Oh well.
A surgical doctor assesses at eight o’clock the next morning. She is a no-nonsense shoot from the hip type with a northern accent and marque 3 is enamoured. She makes a clinical diagnosis. She tells us that an ultrasound or even CT scan are not helpful in diagnosing this.
‘It’s very unlikely to be anything else, where the pain is, especially in a boy, and how he’s presenting. The surgical Professor will examine and will, most likely, operate today. Any questions?’
‘No’, marque 3 says. ‘That’s very concise. Thank you’.
‘Is that a general anaesthetic?’
The surgical Professor whips in with a team of students. He presses. Prods. Palpates.
‘We’ll operate today in a couple of hours. 90 percent of the time in a case like this it’s the appendix.’ Wow. Just like that.
Maybe a hundred but I’m stunned and don’t ask. Another surgical doctor comes in afterwards and explains the entire thing to us. Then I’m asked to sign my name. To consent. I feel a little nauseous with a stabbing pain myself now. Consenting with the other person so far away. Marque 3 has to sign it too. Another little stab seeing him do that.
Marque 3 maintains his sunny optimism and I do my best to mimic him.
‘I’m not worried at all. They’re excellent. I’m in safe hands’. Yes, darling.
Before we have a chance to get out of the emergency department and on to a ward he’s gowned up and taken off. Wheeled to theatre with me beside him. Out of somewhere I conjure up a lovely calm reassuring self. Especially when I see it. That little bit of fear dancing in his eyes as we wait at the theatre check in spot and it becomes very real.
‘I’m feeling a little nervous now actually’, he says.
I think it must be him from thousands of miles away, here with me now, keeping that smile going, the tears at bay, whispering reassurances. Because I’m not one for this. He is. When marque 3 needed an op at 18 months, he was selected as the person to carry him to theatre. To watch him go under. Long blond curls bounced and his little face beamed as he waved a yellow gowned blue elephant arm at me on his way. I dove onto his bed and bawled. Now, I kiss the top of his lovely head through my Covid mask and tell him it will all be fine. That’s it’s a standard procedure, that they do this all the time, that I’ll see him in an hour. I watch him go. Then I turn my back on him and wait for the real me to return.
Back in the trenches marque 1 has taken over as parent. He gets marque 5 to his dental appointment and treats him to his first ever real coffee. He organises the food for all. I’ve nothing to worry about except the real thing. Which is out of my hands now. I do the only thing I can. I send a message to the most significant others. The message says ‘Now’. Now get those prayers or thoughts or lights or whatever works going. He’s gone in.
I’m shown to his room on the ward to wait. I’m close to passing out. The adrenaline has been pumping away good-o but but it seems to hit me now all at once. No sleep. No food. Worry. Exhaustion. But then a mirage of a ward nurse manager hovers in the doorway, shimmering at me, saying she’ll see if there’s any lunch left. Would I like a little lunch if there is any? There might be a bit of chicken pie. And a cup of tea. These two quite ordinary things sound and seem utterly exquisite. Within seconds steaming creamy chicken and mushroom pie, flecked with black pepper in a golden puff pastry is delivered before me. An oasis. It is the most delicious thing I’ve ever had. As I hoover away and marvel at how taste buds are surprising things I wonder. How can I eat when my baby is upstairs, under, being cut and cauterised, poked and singed. What have I turned into? Nope. Not a morsel of guilt. The phone calls begin. I natter. Ninety to the dozen. I try not to read the faces of serious doctors walking past. If they’re looking for me, they’ll have to try harder. I’m no longer present.
A ghost child is wheeled back. Paler than pale. Lips the colour of his face. It went well, I’m told. A congested appendix. Histology will tell how infected it was. A good call. Still. Just look at him. What have you done to him?
He dozes. He cannot speak. They ask if I’d like some dinner. Plonk a plate of carbonara pasta with chips. I laugh to myself. The idea of eating pasta and chips together. And me on that low carb health kick these last few months. It’s hilarious. I’m full on rocking with laughter, stuffed with chicken pie, as I tell myself that I’ll just taste a piece of pasta and push it away. As the saltiness and the msg kick in they sing to me to try some more. To go on ahead and dip the deep fried chips right on into the carbonara sauce as it begins to compete with the chicken pie and I think that’s it. I stare at my sleeping post op baby and hoover away until every last trace is gone. I could almost lick the plate. That’s it. I must’ve gone completely off my rocker. Finally.
He begins to come around. The full blast of what he’s been through evident in every little movement. In his soft voice and bloodshot eyes. He starts to vomit. This is not going to be straight forward. He’s checked every 15 minutes. His blood pressure and heart rates are worryingly low. He’s in a lot of pain. I consented to this. The guilt begins to creep back in. Good. I’m coming back. I’ll kip here beside him. Keep a good watchful eye. Attend to his every need. They hand me a pillow and some blankets. I pull out the chair. Make it into a bed. Check in with them all at home. Talk about them making their school lunches. Organising their uniform bits. Setting alarms. I’m not coming home. Marque 5 texts.
‘I’m enjoying fending for myself. It feels really nice’. A silver lining moment.
My head hits the pillow and I remember little else. Vague moments of sporadically asking him if he’s okay but otherwise I’m comatose. I must be drugged. I can’t wake up properly. If he says he’s not okay, then what do I do? I can’t move a muscle. He was given morphine which he says had no effect whatsoever on the pain so now I wonder if I was drugged by osmosis. Did the morphine go into me instead? Or have I ingested some of his general anaesthetic?
I wake to the sound of a young child screaming next door. He doesn’t want a cannula put in. He’s very sure about it. It’s five o’clock in the morning. Marque 3 is smiling.
‘Oh, you’re awake now. You were really deeply asleep Mum. Nurses coming in all night giving me stuff, and you were there sleeping right through it. Snoring’.
‘Jesus, snoring? I wasn’t was I?’
‘Yep. All night and I was really surprised because you never snore’.
That’s what chicken pie, creamy pasta and chips can do to a person. Throw them into a coma. Strip them of all their worldly concerns. Take note. It’s better than morphine.
‘God, I wasn’t much use to you so’.
‘No. You kept me awake actually’.
Brilliant. Well done you. We laugh about it.
He rings. He of the thousands of miles. Tentatively. He’s been imagining me propped on the corner of our child’s hospital bed, bolt upright, fighting sleep with hyper vigilance as he fans off the heat of a foreign land. An image I’d quite like him to keep until marque 3 spills the beans and he breathes easily and they joke and they laugh and the relief fills the room.
It’s the end of an almost perfect holiday. The expectations had been set on medium to low: get out of the metropolis and breathe, which is something, all things considered. But then we found ourselves in our holiday town, under a blue sky, welcomed by all, bristling amongst Irish tourists bedecked in shorts, t-shirts and face masks, patting perspiring brows and glowing in the treat of this blast of summer. Who’d of thought it? We knew better than to jinx it by announcing it. That didn’t go too well the last time, as we pinched ourselves with delight, basking and chanting our good luck until three days in a significant person took a tumble. This time we just rolled with it. We accepted it as we trotted through the town with the dog, to the oohs and aaws and outstretched hands of outdoor seated coffee sipping holiday makers. We’re all in this together and this is damn good we tried not to say out loud.
Turquoise ocean swims were a daily feature. The discovery of the peppering of the water with large jellyfish of an uncomfortable stinging variety failed to deter, most of the time. We dodged and dove, splashed and sprawled – spread eagled star fish floating, staring up at the sun. We held onto every precious second of it, knowing as we do that it’s a rare thing, the lot of us in this element together, teenagers and parents as one, exhilarated. We held onto it knowing things are about to change. The current economic situation has forced our hand. One of us will be living and working an eight hour flight away all too soon. We pushed it down and did not speak of it, this impending rupture. We wallowed instead in these precious moments, capturing them fully to draw on in mid-winter. We wallowed in the contagion of the good holiday mood all around us, in the welcome and the cheer and the suppressed thoughts about the pandemic.
We were, however, brought down from our holiday cloud temporarily one sunny day. A little blip which we’ll write out of our collective memory very soon. We had arrived at our usual spot and were setting up, removing the picnic rug and chairs from the boot, about to savour all the beauty, when a semi-clad white haired and sparsely bearded man appeared on the brow of the hill. He ran towards us.
‘Hello’, I said, cheerily, reefing the picnic bag out.
‘Can I have a quiet word with one of you?’he said, panting. A quiet word. That sounds quite lovely.
‘Yes’, I said, offering the opportunity to the other one of us. He’s prepared, you see. We’ve been coming here for well over a decade now, across the commonage, down to the beach. This time it’s been a little different though, due to a newly erected sign which precludes camper vans, quad bikes and recreational vehicles to protect the flora and fauna. When we saw the sign, we phoned our friend who lives here, to check it out further. She gave us the back story. Quad bikers had been arriving in increasing numbers. There was an accident. A helicopter had to rescue a very injured party. Enough was enough. The neighbours got together and put up their own little sign first of all, followed by the official sign about the campers and quad bikers. It didn’t apply to us she said. Go ahead and enjoy your days. If anyone asks, you have permission. Simple as.
He went around the side of the car for the quiet word while I slid down on the picnic rug with the kids, trying to hear and trying not to hear. All I could make out was the word welcome, which didn’t sound very welcoming. It was brief enough, this exchange.
‘As far as I’m concerned, you’re not welcome’, he said.
‘Thank you’, the other one of us said.
‘You’re welcome’, the man said, grazing past us like a bull. The Bull McCabe.
We looked around the beautiful landscape, devoid of people, except for McCabe now swimming solo in the expansive bay and we wondered. About how a person could have the gall to tell a family they’re not welcome. About how a person could want this all to himself. It stood in stark contrast to everything else we were experiencing and everything else we knew. The welcoming, the well wishes, the communal feeling that we should all enjoy this as much as we can. It’s been a tough year for everyone, after all. We knew he was wrong and we knew we could prove it. But still, for that day it niggled, our confidence shaken. We packed up, went elsewhere, to a beach populated with lovely friendly holiday makers and we swam with them, dodging the sting of the jellyfish which seemed less menacing now in this new light.
We shook it off. A couple of days later we returned to the beautiful beach for the other one’s birthday. It’s his dream to be there on his birthday and this one was better than most as he swam with his sons and with me, basking in it. With no sign of the bull. That evening we ate out as a family – for the first time since my own birthday back in February – devouring and savouring it all together, at ease, pushing the future weeks down, down, all the way down into oblivion. A round of complimentary birthday drinks from the owner helped considerably with this.
I had a three tiered pandemic survival strategy at the start of this. Well I had many a three tiered pandemic survival strategy. But one of them was to exercise, eat healthily and become a fervent lotto player. I’ve stuck to them all. Marque 3 set me up on the phone to play lotto, which was a little dangerous, all these things I could enter at the touch of a button, so I swapped back for the real deal. A physical ticket for physical money. It’s become a little worse lately, this desire to win. It would keep the other one of us here with his family instead of that eight hour plane ride away for months on end. I’ve upped my dedication to playing. Hell bent on saving the family. And I almost did.
On the Saturday, a day after his birthday, I bought a Quick Pick in the Gala store in Clifden for that night’s draw of €7.3 million. On the Monday the news that the winning ticket was bought in Clifden flashed on my phone in a message from my mother. I was back in Dublin, the ticket safely binned in Clifden. I tortured myself. What if the scanning app on my phone that I checked the ticket with was wrong? Can you actually trust an app at a time like this? Did I misread it? Did it say Congratulations instead of Sorry? Was I too tired from packing up to notice the difference? Should I start to make my way back to Clifden to chase down the bin that’s been carted away at this stage? Do I wait to hear that it was a different shop that sold it, and then breathe again?
When the unwelcome news came that it was indeed the same shop and it was indeed a Quick Pick winning ticket the nausea set in. I’d thrown the winning ticket away. Then someone else stepped forward, claiming it. Having got word and rifled through the bins. Obviously.
I came pretty close it seems. Not close enough to keep him here and Storm Ellen was a testament to how I feel about that. But close enough to realise how lucky we are, in the greater scheme of things, to have been together for a wonderful holiday week, bolstered for the future now whatever that brings.
It’s a stormy Friday night and I’m upstairs with marque 5 trying to remember how to do long division. The school hours have slipped on by, what with work and visiting my father and the weekly shop and another thing that has been hammering away at me since yesterday. It’s catch up time.
‘Bring the nine down’, I say to bemused twinkling hazel eyes. He knows not what I speak of and nor do I. I’m simultaneously googling away, but not for long division tips. It’s a rescue I’m after. Seeing as the vet said that it wouldn’t survive on its own. The rescue place I need to try now is coming up as temporarily closed due to Covid. I couldn’t get through to the others either. There’s a number strictly for emergencies for this one. Is this an emergency? Maybe his mother will come back for him. Maybe she just needs a little more time to work it out. Like we all do.
There’s a knock on the door. Marque 4 comes in.
‘Mum, can I have a word with you?’ Gosh. How very formal. Something bad must’ve happened. His eyes look wider than usual. Tinged with alarm.
‘So, Mum, we brought the the kitten in to the house’, he whispers, tempering me.
‘What? No. Jesus. We can’t do that. We can’t bring it in. Dad’s highly allergic and it’s feral, god knows what it has, parasites, we’ll have to take it back out. I’m trying to get a rescue place and…’
‘Dad brought it in Mum’.
Well now. The thudding begins. Me descending the stairs a little more heavily than necessary, keeping beat with the thuds in my neck. Not two hours ago he was saying there’s no way we could bring it in. It would land him straight back in the hospital. Which is why I’ve been ringing the vet, the NSPCA, Cat Rescue and next up the emergency number for the DSPCA. Then without a jot of consultation when I’m safely ensconced in battling out long division, he whips the thing in anyway. I burst through the breakfast room door to the sight of a slightly sheepish smiling husband stroking the little thing’s head. It’s in a red and beige Vans shoebox on the table. I try very hard not to look at it. It will be dangerous to look.
‘Jesus, what are you doing? We can’t just bring a feral kitten into the house. It could have any range of parasites, fleas, god knows and we have a dog, remember, and there’s your health which we’ve just got back…’ I’m aware that there are many pairs of eyes on me as I rave on with the impossibility of it all. Wide silent eyes, laced with a little bit of amused terror. Perhaps this is it, I’m thinking. Perhaps I’ve finally cracked and the poor kids have to witness it full on.
‘Well there’s no way we could leave it out in the storm, is there?’ asks the highly allergic parent in a highly annoying rational voice.
‘It’s getting dark and the rain has kicked in’, the rational voice continues. ‘It’s cold, hailstone cold, and a big storm is forecast for overnight. He wouldn’t survive it’.
‘How did you catch him up? Was he scared?’
‘I got him Mum, he kept running away from Dad’, marque 2 chimes in.
The father nods.
‘Not a chance of me catching him’.
‘He was hiding under a load of stuff and pretty scared at first’, marque 2 continues. ‘It was hard to get near him. I put a sock over my hand and arm in case he’d bite or scratch, and when I got close enough I picked him up by the scruff of the neck like the mother does’.
Of course he did. Marque 2 always knows what to do, and does it in a calm assured way. It would be impossible for anything to be scared of marque 2.
I glance at the little thing, shuffling around in the box, the black sports sock in beside him for comfort. He looks up at me. Sad blue eyes. White fur in the main with spots of black. Delicious. But I already know this. I have lots of photos on my phone from the last couple of days. Him with a sibling one day, creeping through our No Mow May (June) garden. Then ones of him all alone. Standing on an old football. The mother moved the sibling on and left him. Abandoned.
‘Let’s have a look then’, I say, sitting down at the box. Something akin to the let down breast feeding reflex kicks in. Just as they all knew it would.
‘He’s so tame for a wild kitten’, I say, smitten.
‘Yes and he was starving. We gave him some tuna, he hoovered it up’, one of them says. I can see they’ve put a shell in the box too, filled with water. Ever resourceful in their mother’s absence.
‘Let’s ring Nanny’, marque 3 says.
‘She’ll know what to do next’. As I sit there falling in love they ring my mother who has rescued many a kitten. She rescues and keeps them. There was a time when she had six. She is the calm voice of reason. We’re doing it all right. Just wash the hands properly and work the rest out tomorrow. We know we can’t keep it. But maybe we can save it.
The boys get busy setting up a home for him in the porch. We need to contain him and keep him separate from the dog. They make a kitty litter of sorts, sand on a birthday party paper plate. I laugh to myself at the idea of it. A feral kitten using a litter tray. They put down water. Line the Vans box with a towel. Plug a draft in the front door. Then they sit and watch him through the glass. Oohs and awws resound. I try to block them out. I need to get to the solution. What we’re going to do with him tomorrow .
I wake with a thud. It’s 6.30 on Saturday morning. An awful thought. What if the little thing didn’t survive the night. I run downstairs and peep into the porch. No sign. Empty bed. God. Then I hear it. The most gorgeous little mewl. Very close by. I look down. He’s right beneath the glass door behind the little electric heater that marque 2 set up for him. Just asking to be invited further in. The dote. I step into the porch and stand there. He rubs his little head off my ankle. Then he steps on my feet – front paws on one foot, back paws on the other – mewling, as the lactation kicks in once again.
The kids all rise early too, dying to see him. A couple of them are looking for anti-histamines. Something has set their eyes and noses to open tap mode. I daren’t look at their father. The dog has come around to the arrangement. They’re talking to one another, the kitten and him, through the glass door. Swapping their stories. I dose my addled brain with lots of coffee. Someone around here is going to have to take action. I phone our vets again and explain that I want to get him checked over and look for advice about what we can do. I’m told we can bring him up and they’ll check him for ring worm amongst other things. They’re also going to phone a couple of people who said they were looking to adopt a kitten.
He’s asleep on an old black kid’s runner, ah god. I line the Vans box with a cosy brush cotton pillow case. Just before I pluck him up he meanders over to the the kitty litter. Bang in the middle of the sand on the happy birthday plate he does his business. What? How the hell does he know to do that? Our very clever little boy. He’s so easy to handle too. Doesn’t flinch when I pick him up and put him in the box. I close the newly perforated lid and bring him out to the car. He sits on my knee and we drive off with him and I wonder whether I can actually do this. Can I hand him over for a possible adoption when it’s pretty clear he’s ours? On cue, the driver starts to sneeze. His eyes begin to stream. There’s the faint hint of a wheeze. Let’s do this.
The vet nurse emerges from the door and I hand the precious box over. She smiles reassuringly, much like a midwife would, and says she’ll phone me in a few minutes. It’s an anxious wait. I feel I should be a nail biter or a smoker or something devastatingly useful.
The phone blasts and I press to answer with my Covid gloves. I put it on speaker. She announces that it’s a boy, yay, of course it is, and that he doesn’t appear to have ringworm but he does have flea dirt so she’s treating him for that. The people who were looking to adopt a kitten have since got ones. So her mother will take him for the weekend, if that’s okay with us, and she’ll put the feelers out for a home next week.
‘There’ll be no problem getting him a home, he’s lovely. Sad eyes. So cute. He even purred when I was checking his tummy’. That’s my boy.
Back at the house and it seems horribly empty. No more delightful little mewls. No more lactating tugs. I remove his bits from the porch and bin the kitty litter, smiling at his brightness still. Dreading the moment when I have to tell the others he’s gone. I stare at the photos of him for the rest of the weekend, and in my own way pray for him to get a good home.
It’s Monday morning and the phone rings merrily beside me. It’s the vet nurse.
‘Good news’, she says.
‘We brought him to my brother’s. They have a cat who had kittens a little while ago, but they all died’.
‘We wanted to see how she would react to your kitten. And she’s taken to him. She’s cleaning him and taking care of him as if he’s hers’.
A violent stinging in my eyes. A tremble to my voice.
‘Yes, it’s so cute, the two of them together. He’s very playful. I’ll send you a few videos and pictures if you like’.
‘Absolutely. The kids will be thrilled to see them too’.
‘Oh and his name is Dice’.
A grieving mother cat adopts a kitten abandoned by its own mother. All in a roll of the dice.
The hours bleed into one another without distinction. Punctuation has to be self imposed and it is not. A part time job spills into full time without anyone noticing. Boundaries declared from above are lost in the smelt. A free fall blurring swims up to greet us. Until.
‘I think you’re going to have to take me in’, the vulnerable person announces.
It’s a mid-week work morning, getting close to tea break time, that thing of the past. I press a few more keys on the laptop while I absorb. He’s crouch-standing before me uttering these words. Words that he’s been batting down for weeks now. Upping the meds. Swapping them around. Making it up as he goes along, a hot whiskey thrown in for good measure.
‘I’m waiting for the doctor to call back’, he says in a low slow whisper, with a look that tells me I probably shouldn’t ask him to repeat, a thing I tend to do while I decide my best reaction.
‘But I have nothing, no breath at all, just so you know’.
My forefinger continues to press keys and I stare at him in the doorway as the fear announces itself. A tuning fork strikes the top of my head and is left to ring.
‘Okay’, I say, or someone says for me. It sounds good. Pragmatic and soothing all at once. I love when this person steps forward. All clear and actioned, rising out of the mist.
I look down at my pyjamas. A vigorous empowering shower calls from above to be taken during tea break while he fulfils the task I’ve set him. To send me a list of all he might need for a hospital stay. Even as I say it, it seems a little treacherous. Having a hand in it. Packing him off to succumb to the war.
The doctor confirms this is the only course of action and writes a letter for A&E. He gives us a choice with it. It’s up to us whether we brace the super busy state of the art hospital, or the smaller local one. Who needs a choice at a time like this? We banter it out. The super busy hospital is where he was last. All the notes. The consultants. The local hospital. Less Covid perhaps. Close by. All in all less scary. Fingers crossed.
I’m back at the desk, pressing fingers on a keyboard, tuning fork humming merrily in my head. There’s a no caller id phone call buzzing on my iPhone beside me. The pragmatic person says it must be answered. It could be the hospital after all. The tuning fork pitch goes up a notch as I slide to answer. A male voice.
‘Is this Mrs Kelly?’
I wonder if it is. Certainly not something I’d ever call myself. But he does, on occasion, if he wants to irk and have a laugh. I confirm that I reckon it is. The voice announces itself as a teacher. My reaction is delayed at best, verging on rude as my brain works it out. It’s hard to work it out with the fork still screaming. It’s not the hospital. Just a teacher. Marque 5’s teacher. He picks up the slack. Rabbits on a bit while I catch up. Ordinarily talking to a teacher would not be top on my list of fun things to do in a day, but such is the relief that it’s not the hospital he’s treated to a super enthusiastic version of how it’s all going in lockdown. Yes we’re getting through some school work. Not putting the kid under too much pressure but hey, yes, we have it in hand. It all sounds mightily jolly, verging on maniacal perhaps, or as if I’ve hit the gin mid afternoon. I’m almost hanging up when he enquires if marque 5 is here (eh I think so, we’re on lockdown, remember?) and if he can have a chat with him. The tuning fork changes pitch to a low dull boom. I picture marque 5, up playing fortnite, and I look at the phone and wonder how to navigate this. Shall I just say no? If I go up with the phone into the darkened room and announce the teacher wants a chat, there’s no telling what might happen. The fright of it. I’m very frightened myself now. I hear myself saying that I’ll go and search for him, as if it’s a mansion we’re in and there’s no telling where he might be. I leave the phone safely downstairs, away from any reaction that may be a touch unsavoury. His little eyes widen in quizzical disappointment as he removes his headphones and follows me down like a lamb to the slaughter.
‘Well, I get up at eleven’, I hear him say and I think I might just keel over. The rug at the hearth could take me, cushion the blow. But then I rethink it. Of all the things to keel over about today this perhaps is not the one. I listen on.
‘Yeah. I do a few spellings’. Phew. Don’t forget to mention maths.
‘Then I play games’. God. Limited I mutter, the online games. Two hours max.
‘I go for a long walk. Yes. Everyday’. Good man.
I’m back on to the teacher as he scribbles out his damning notes and tells me it’s great to hear the little voice. I treat him to a last blast of lockdown coping jollity when I tell him how we’re watching films most nights too. The whole family together. No mean feat. Sometimes they’re in French, great for the old reading the teacher is supposed to deduce, or perhaps I announce, all those subtitles. Late to bed, late to rise but hey, there are many forms of education.
‘He asked me what my routine is Mum’, marque 5 says, eyes sparkling in cahoots with me before turning around and running back upstairs. Routine. What a curious word. I’m left battling a competing mixture of pride and guilt. That the child knows what the word means, as he certainly didn’t pick it up here – pride. That I’m not doing enough with and for him – guilt. I allow pride to win and declare another school day over. Yay.
The patient is on the line. He was triaged over the phone from the car park in case he’s a risk. In a flash he went from being a sick person in need of health care to being a person who is a potential health threat. He’s respiratory and must be treated as if he has Covid. We know it’s not Covid. They probably know it’s not Covid. The precautions are welcome though. The corridors are emptied as he’s admitted, this bio risk. He’s in isolation and he’s tested. Anyone coming anywhere near him has the full PPE. He’s not allowed to go to the toilet. A commode is left in the room instead. The care is exemplary. A good call to choose this hospital, he reassures. Quiet and excellent. Drips and nebulisers and steroids all while he waits for his Covid status. When it comes back negative he’s shifted to a small ward. Two other men, one young, one old. Immediately the tuning fork starts up again. I’d prefer if he stays by himself, away from all other humans. We’ve been so careful with him, cocooning from well in advance of the directives. The next day he tells me how the young man has been removed from the ward. He had tested negative for Covid, but then developed a fever over night. The tests can be wrong, apparently. Back to isolation for the young man as a precaution. Excellent. But then our vulnerable person may have just spent a night with someone who is positive. I push it right down. Choose to not go there. There’s no room in my brain to go there.
It’s my father’s 86th birthday and the excellent nursing home staff are facilitating a visit. They will wheel him out at 4pm into the garden and we can see him in the flesh from a distance. They are angels and they love him. Everybody loves him. Quite right too. He’s a sweetheart. I’m there with all my boys. My sister and brother stand 2 meters apart from us and from each other. I’m feeling slightly nauseous. How will it be possible to see him and not touch him? Will I be able to resist the urge to seize the wheelchair and run off with him, away from danger to somewhere safe? The pragmatic actioning person is summoned and dutifully arrives. At two minutes past four, as the door to the garden opens and he is pushed through, blinking into the light she bats back the tears, beams, congratulates, loves from a distance. His eyes twinkle behind his glasses as he reads our words on cards held up to him. He declares the staff who managed to organise this to be geniuses. And they are.
The patient banters with the kids on WhatsApp. They plan a heist. He’s to emerge with the valuables – sanitizers, face masks, nebulisers. One of them will run the XC90 at the main entrance. One is to bring toast and jam. They are to dress in squirrel costumes. Two of them actually pop by the hospital on their walk. Tell him to look out the window onto the street. They’re readying themselves for the heist. A bad scary situation turned on its head with a bit of humour and fun. The kids showing the parents how to do it. Once again.
Four days later he lands on the doorstep. Parachutes in. One of the troops returned to us on a sunny afternoon, bag slung across his shoulder, multi-coloured stubble on his face. He decided to walk rather than ask for a lift. What? Some mighty steroids thrum in him. He sits out in the sun while I make him a bacon sandwich. Laughter fills the garden as he catches up with the kids. He bites into the soft bread, sucking out the salt his body has craved for days. He declares it the best sandwich he has had in his life. What other drugs pulse in him? Can I have some too please?
The episode has crystallised the hours for us. No longer do they spill and bleed. The important stuff has risen to the top and left the murk well below. We blaze on with new definitions.
The birds are going berserk outside. Magpies sounding like machine gunfire. Swooping and diving and spraying their cackling bullets. Do they know something that we don’t yet know?
Since the start of this I’ve been struck by the birds. By the cacophony of mostly sweet sounding slightly maniacal chirps that assaults us as we walk. By how they continue on as if they don’t actually believe the sky is falling down.
‘Listen’, I say to whomever is lucky enough to be closest to me on our one permitted daily walk, strictly within a 2km range of the house.
‘Just listen. They’re oblivious to it all. Carrying on with their delight at the arrival of springtime. We need to capture this. We need to mimic the birds’, I say to them or to myself.
‘Eh, okay then Mum’.
Birdsong. An antidote to coronavirus collective angst. There’s no point in worrying, the birds tell us. Stick to the restrictions and sing they seem to suggest. Which we’re doing. Pretty well as it happens. Music and song and laughter permeates our days. The children are particularly good at it. I’m faking it until we make it. As I write, the middle child is strumming guitar and singing in his bedroom above me, chilled to the hilt. Perhaps he’s supposed to be in google classroom or beavering away at his maths or history, or submitting ideas about how the Junior Cert could now be undertaken, if it’s not to be a write-off now altogether. I wouldn’t know. But what’s coming through the floorboards seems perfectly apt.
Outside though, the sound of the machine gunfire magpies has set my heart hammering, the doubt seeping back in. Are we being vigilant enough? Should I have allowed our eldest to go to the shops when crisps and cookies are not exactly necessities? Should I have sprayed the handle of the supermarket trolley with Dettol disinfectant, even though I was wearing gloves? Should I have coughed into my elbow to tell other shoppers that they’re coming too close to me in the aisles? Encroaching beyond the 2 metre guidelines and no one else in sight to police it. Or perhaps I should’ve used some other non-verbal cue, a quick slit of the eye, a tut or a sigh, a little yelp when a gang of women in pyjamas swarmed in and surrounded me. Should I have unpacked the shopping myself, or allowed the vulnerable person in the house to help? Should I have shouted at the second youngest for seizing his packet of jellies from the table before I had a chance to wipe the packet down? The gunfire magpies know the answers. They know what’s coming down the tracks for us. Time for another walk perhaps.
Cherry blossoms. They seem to be telling us something too. They bloom on magnificently, regardless. Coronavirus cannot restrict their growth. The enormous tree at the top of this road, far reaching abundant branches, enough to spark pleasure hormones in those who pass, tickling the senses. Even our own spindly tree. A late bloomer at best each year, but here they come anyway, the blossoms peeping on through. Reassuringly bright. Hold tight they tell us, as they dance in the wind. All will be well.
A grey squirrel with a large white patch across his back – looking very much like he’s stolen a face mask and managed to strap it on – darts up the trunk of an old oak tree. Business as usual. An enormous cuddly Bernese Mountain dog stands beside the tree and watches calmly, seemingly amused. Breathe deeply and imbibe. This is the way to do it. Mimic the Bernese Mountain dog. Solid, stolid, in the moment, taking it all in. Calmly amused. Because worrying excessively about the five children, the vulnerable person in the house, the unwritten wills, the unpaid bills, the word cluster, the father in the nursing home, the mother who is another vulnerable person – doubly so – will not achieve a thing. Back to nature, to the collective action of all of us in this together, apart, chirping as mightily as we can. Dodging the bullets for another day.
Outside a beautiful goldfinch sits on the tippy-top of our cherry blossom tree. He turns his little red face and looks straight in at me. Good plan he seems to say.
We buy a bottle of Vodka in Aldi, marvelling at the price and wondering why we’ve never done this before. Needs must now. We mix it with aloe vera and dispense it into little containers. I slip one into marque 5’s pencil case and tell him to use it often, throughout the day. Not to eat a single thing without it. Such is the fear of the herd. We have a high risk person amongst us.
He sails out of school to us after his guitar lesson. He’s being taught by a band member from the Corona’s. I kid you not. He’s sunny as ever as he climbs into the car and begins to spout his news. It’s been a great fun day. It’s always a great fun day in his ten year old world. He tells us the stories, vivid and alluring, the things that have tickled him and sent him into the danger zone of contagious classroom laughter. He is, I suspect, often the one to spark the contagion. We join him, giggling as we drive off, a little reprieve. Until.
‘Did you remember to use the hand sanitizer throughout the day?’
‘Teacher confiscated it’.
‘What? What the hell?’
‘I was playing with my friends and one of them was talking about Russians, he loves talking about Russians, and I told him we made our own sanitizer with Vodka and…’
Making our own was, needless to say, a last resort after scouring all the shops and pharmacies in Dublin. A tiny bit of control in this maelstrom. Teaching the kids too. Creativity and resilience. Can’t buy it, make your own. Shipping them off to school utterly defenceless had the nausea rising for days before. Tales from the secondary school of no soap in the toilets and one ‘sanitizer’ that squirts a watery substance – without any smell – directly at your jumper. They’re convinced that it is actually just water. This, in a school where countless lads had returned from a ski trip from Northern Italy. On the cusp of the outbreak here. We follow a homemade hand sanitizer recipe from rsvplive and we are delighted with ourselves.
The note in the homework journal tells me that ‘Vodka is not an appropriate liquid for school’. I get the pen out and burn through a page, a delicious rage thrumming. The biggest threat to the vulnerable person in this house will come from the kids bringing it in from school. I try to keep it to an A4 and fail a couple of times, nailing it on the last. Just. Ta-dah.
He sails out of school and begins his story telling, peppering it with the only news I want to hear.
‘Oh and I got the sanitizer back. I’m allowed to use it in school and I used it all day’.
He shows me. It’s half gone. Yay. More on the way. I almost high five him. We will prevail. Mini victories in the war.
The closure of the schools two days later and it’s like a rope has been thrown. I don’t have to battle on to keep afloat, quizzing them about their interactions, the frequency of their sanitizing, whether anyone was coughing near them, whether the ski trip lads have been told to stay home yet. Nope. Excellent authoritative decision making by the powers that be and a little more control for parents in the war. The vulnerable person feels like celebrating his new found safety.
‘Ah go on. I could stay outside with the smokers, keep my distance, just the one?’
The strategies trip out of me in threes. It’s all about seeing the opportunities in this I mutter to my lovely mutt.
‘We’ll buy flowers, play lotto and exercise to get through this’, I announce to marque three.
‘Eh, okay then’.
‘We’ll transform the garden, de-clutter the house and decorate’, I announce to the vulnerable person. He coughs. Manages to get a full fit going. Splutters that he might just need to self isolate in another part of the country.
‘We’ll draw, read, and look, you can enter this children’s short story competition’ I announce to marque 5.
‘What’s the prize?’
‘No way. All that work writing a story just to get book tokens?’ He shudders. Only if you win I manage not to say.
They get gardening nonetheless. A trip to the wonderful Windy Ridge garden centre. Marque 2 and marque 5 bring back strawberry and blackberry plants one day. Marque 3 and marque 4 bring back Valentine and Senetti, Viola Blue Moon and Primrose Princess. Planting. Colour. Growth. That’s the way out of this, isn’t it? There’s barely a drop of anxiety to be squeezed in these veins, what with all the escalating restrictions and plants keeping us safe.
Marque 2 and marque 3 return from a long evening time walk. They’re full of chat and I’m half listening, banging some food together. There’s mention of a shop in the village, how it’s not going to close, not unless it’s forced to. I join in.
‘You didn’t buy anything to eat did you?’
‘Yeah, just a packet of crisps’, marque 2 says.
‘You didn’t eat them though did you?’
‘Yeah, but it was just a small pack, I’m still hungry for dinner, I’ll be grand’.
There’s a thudding in my neck.
‘Tell me you used sanitizer before eating them’.
‘What? No. I didn’t need to’.
‘Was there money exchanged?’
‘Yeah, but it’s okay ‘coz he was wearing gloves and I just used this one finger and thumb to eat them’.
I should take a deep breath, count to ten.
Let it go. Just let it go.
‘He’s wearing gloves to protect himself, not you. All the money that’s been in god knows how many people’s pockets, hands, coughed on, sneezed on. Handed straight to you, to practically put in your mouth. Do you know some places won’t actually accept money anymore? It’s that bloody serious. I can’t believe I’m having to say this to you’.
His post walk rosy cheeked hue has disappeared along with his easy banter. He leaves me to it, sloshing out the creamy chicken tagliatelle onto plates for vanished appetites.
Later he reappears. I try to think of something reassuring to say and as I stumble he takes over.
‘It’s okay. You know how we made the sanitizer? Yeah well if Vodka kills it on hands it could kill it my mouth too so I had some. Just a bit. Neat’.
It’s a dark dawn in early October when the cracks first appear. I’m being dropped off at a meeting point on the N11 from where I’ll be picked up and escorted to the AGM in Kildare. Only I don’t quite get there. The sound of a helicopter hovers close by. Ever closer. Ever louder.
‘Is that noise coming from our car?’
Then silence. We glide along in dark disbelieving silence, the engine no longer propelling us forward, but something else. A freewheeling willpower. I can’t miss the bloody AGM.
He pulls over, throws on the hazards and seamlessly dials the AA while trying to attract the attention of a FreeNow. Immediate acceptance of the situation while I’m in the throes of utter denial.
Minutes later I’m waltzing up the middle of the deserted taxi-less road to get closer to the meeting point. A large white van passes and beeps at me, at this strange forlorn sight. As if the Friday night out on the tiles hasn’t gone so well and I’m lost. Disoriented. Which I am. I resist the urge to stick the middle finger up. Cheek of him.
We’re carless for the next week. Busing and accepting lifts and walking to Tesco’s with a pull along suitcase. When I pick her up I’m told the battery was faulty, so they’ve replaced it. I describe the helicopter noise that didn’t seem to me to be indicative of a battery issue. I’m told that she perhaps isn’t fixed after all then. No kidding.
‘Test it out over the next few days. Take a long spin off down the M50. We’ll soon know if it’s fixed or not’.
Eh, no thanks.
I drive off anyway. I need to drop marque 2 somewhere. On the way back, stuck at the lights, I glance in the rear view mirror. Someone behind me is stressed to the hilt, vaping like mad. Huge plumes of white smoke billow from his window. Got to be bad for you I think as I take off in a different direction and the white plumes follow me.
Straight back to the garage.
He opens the bonnet in a display of care. He shakes his head.
‘It could be the turbo, burning the oil. Not good, not good at all’.
He calls an accomplice. They both shake their heads.
‘What are you trying to tell me?’
‘Well, at this age there’s only so much we can do you know? And you have to weigh up the cost. Is it worth trying to fix her?’
Of course it bloody well is.
‘Is it safe to drive?’
‘Just small local bits until we know more. It could be dangerous. Could just explode, you know?’
Not really, no. Off I go for a second opinion. We all need a second opinion. Our midterm holiday is scuppered now but no matter. We will do our best by her.
It’s December. Our second opinion person is still deliberating. His garage is opposite my workplace and I’ve got used to seeing her there every day, waiting patiently for her diagnosis. It’s a case of an organ transplant. He thinks. If we can get the organ. Which we can’t. She’s a Japanese import. Scrap yards and eBay and DoneDeal throw up not a sausage. Weeks have slipped past. We’re renting cars. Depleting non-existent funds. Another solution is tossed our way. We can remove the current organ, transfer it to a hospital, get it mended, pop it back in. Marvellous.
It’s the week before Christmas. To speed things up the father offers to wait for the removal of the organ and then drive like the clappers with it, sirens ablast in the rental, all the way to Cappagh. The name Cappagh is enough to send me running in the opposite direction. An orthopaedic hospital. Somewhere I was supposed to go to as a teenager to correct a trauma induced slight scoliosis. For a metal rod to be inserted down along the spine.
Eh, no thanks.
He goes it alone. Delivers the organ and, the following day collects it mended. In blinding rain and stationary traffic. Through great swathes of industrial estate and many a pot-hole. By the time he returns he’s too late for a party he was due to go along to. Oh well.
The next day the revamped old part is re-inserted. We Christmas shop galore. Hurtle briquettes into the welcoming boot – too nervous to do this in a rental. We just need to get through the next few days and then a week of bliss in the West beckons.
The day before the travel he goes for a spin. A little test to see the performance at, say, 80 kilometres per hour rather than our tootling at 50. All the phones seem to ring simultaneously. The noise was deafening he tells me. People stopping to stare. He’s pulled in at the Rambler’s Rest pub. Waiting for the AA. We collectively deflate. We won’t be heading off for the New Year after all.
The AA deliver her back to our second opinion guy. He has no more opinions. He talks about stripping the engine right back to see what it might be. Going on eBay or DoneDeal if we discover what it is. Yada yada. We’re done. Three months and two missed holidays later.
We task marque 1 with finding a replacement. A temporary solution. On a minuscule budget. We can’t afford a real solution. We want it all for nothing at all, of course. Character and space. Just like we had. But we know this is not the right time for that. Just something to get us all around for a couple of months. He finds something that seems to fit the bill. Kind of. Price wise at least. It’s a cold Saturday afternoon in January and we book a FreeNow to take us off out to the car supermarket in Naas, collecting marque 1 from work on the way. Before going I show marque 2 a picture of it. He nods in silence. A nod that says he most certainly does not approve. It’s what he calls ‘a soccer Mom car’. Totally unbefitting of this family.
A €40 taxi fare is handed over but no matter. We’ll be driving home. We tell the myriad of sales guys which car we’re here to see. They eye us with great suspicion, nay on contempt. Something’s not adding up.
‘You know that’s a trade car don’t you?’
‘A what now?’
‘Trade. No warranty. No guarantees’.
‘But we phoned up and asked if there’s a warranty – and we were told there is. We’ve just got a taxi all the way over here on the strength of that call’.
‘Sure what sort of a warranty would you be expecting for a price like that?’
It’s a whole other language that we don’t know but what we do know, straight off, is that we’re not buying it. He may as well have said it’s guaranteed to fall to bits on the way out of the garage. Taxi?
We get home to a mightily relieved marque 2. While we were battling it out in Naas he was asleep and busily dreaming. About how we came home with two of the grey cars I had shown him, stuck together like supermarket trolleys. How we had screeched up in them, sounding like an un-oiled train coming into a station. How this was going to be our family for the foreseeable.
We up the budget and re-task marque 1. He does a supreme job almost instantly. A very low mileage, one owner, 7 seater, and not a soccer mom seven seater. A touch of character perhaps even. Just a smidgeon. It’s in Drogheda, but hey. They drive off, father and son, in another rental to see it. In a garage. With a warranty. It doesn’t disappoint. What’s more is they’re interested in taking our defunct jeep. For parts. Knock a grand off the price. We’re in.
‘It’s silver’, marque 2 says, not in a good way as he stares at the picture. Silver, like everyone else’s.
‘Can we get it painted a better colour, like the colour of the jeep? You know how the jeep seems to be sort of dark blue, but then in the sun you can see bits of purple coming through. I love that.’
‘Sure. We’ll paint it’, the father says.
‘It’s got a Cork reg Mum’, marque 3 points out. It does indeed.
‘So you know the way when you’re driving and you say things to the car ahead like, ah sure, take your time there, up from Cork, don’t know where you’re going. No no, don’t worry about us behind here, we can be late, just take your time’. He has me perfectly, the irritation in the voice as it rises up. I didn’t know anyone was listening.
‘Yes Mum, you do. So that will be us now. Everyone will be saying that to us, driving behind all annoyed. Can we change the reg, or, you know, colour the C in to make a D?’
It happens all too fast in the end. They announce they can get the new car to us on Thursday night and take the jeep back with them. It’s Wednesday evening. I’m feeling a little nauseous.
‘So we’re going to give the jeep a send off, right?’ Marque 1 enquires.
‘You know, get it back here to the house to say goodbye?’
‘Well, no we can’t. It’s not working, remember?’
With that they all take off. Father and sons. Down to the garage to clear it out and to say goodbye. There were tears, I’m told, as they removed all the shells of the day, stored in pockets, each one representing a beach day out West. As they found the rusty good luck horse shoe. The books stashed under seats. The camera. The lost iPod. All the memories swimming up to greet their damp eyes. Marque 2 takes a sound recording of the indicator in action. Just to have, you know?
As the guillotine hour approaches a collective guilt kicks in. Maybe we didn’t try hard enough to keep her going.
‘It’s a bit like pulling the life support plug on a grandparent and offering the parts for transplant, or the body for science’, one says.
‘It’s like saying goodbye to the family pet’, another one says.
‘I don’t think I’ll be able to go to the West ever again. Not without the jeep. It’ll be too sad’, another one says.
‘I wish I’d never found the new car’, marque 1 says.
‘It’s my fault the jeep’s going. If I hadn’t found it, we wouldn’t be doing this now’. He thinks he’s signed the execution papers. I tell him that it isn’t him, it’s me. It’s my bloody fault.
As the nausea levels rise I busy myself with the dishwasher. A call comes. They’ll be at the garage in twenty minutes. Marque 1 cycles off. All the rest get ready to walk.
‘Let’s go Mum’, marque 3 chimes as I clatter the plates a little more than necessary.
‘Ah no sure. I’ve lots to do here. See you in a bit’. I really don’t want to witness this. To see her go.
‘This is an important family moment Mum. You have to be there. All this other stuff can wait’. He seems to really know about these things.
Off we trudge in the dark. Dog an’ all. When we arrive she’s already up on the tow-truck. Ah god. She looks magnificent still. The lovely loyal old friend. She was nine when we got her and we had her for fourteen years. A whole lifetime for most of the kids. Serving and serving and asking for nothing in return. They reverse out with her and the boys run after the truck down the middle of the road, videoing her for a final time as she rounds the corner. What have we done?
We sit in the new car feeling utterly disloyal. We can’t find the lights and can’t go anywhere. Serves us right. Someone is finding it hard to breathe. It’s got to us all.
Later we bundle the family in for a little test drive. Not too far mind you. We need to swap the insurance. In Tesco’s marque 1 tells me that one of the lads who took the jeep might just keep it for himself instead of dismantling it for parts. We both smile. On she lives. Just as she should.
‘So we need to celebrate’ he says, picking up a cake. I pluck some bubbly Shloer to go with it.
‘Can we buy these party poppers?’ Marque 4 asks, waving a bag of fifty at me.
‘What for? They’re five (bloody) euros and we’re not having a party’.
‘You know it’s an important family occasion. Saying goodbye to the jeep and hello to the new car. We need to mark these moments in life’, he says, startling me with his thirteen year old maturity. We got the jeep while I was pregnant with him. He has a point.
‘Throw them in’.
It’s too soon to think that the new can replace the old and there’s no replacing a character, is there. Things work annoyingly well in the new. Press a button here and the air conditioning comes on. Press another one there, and hey presto, on comes the radio. Turn a knob and here comes the heat, just as much or as little as you like. Press a button and up rises the seat. It might even be a heated seat. It’s all so very quiet. There’s a leather clad cleanliness that will excite in time, I’m sure. But for now it’s still a little raw. I look for her as I approach work each day, hoping she has somehow been returned. That we didn’t give up on her after all. That she will take us once again across the rugged terrain in the West to the most beautiful beaches in the world and wait while we barbecue and swim. Joining in where she can. Winking at us from the headland as we come back from our walks. Offering shelter as the weather changes in an instant and the hail comes down. That the boys will steer her again on no man’s land at low tide across to Omey island. As they have done all their lives.
When it emerges, finally, that the car is not well enough to transport us all to the West for the Hallowe’en break, we get our thinking caps on. We will not fail them. Instead of frolicking on golden windswept beaches we’ll dot the break with other silver lined moments. Create new glorious memories. Double-quick.
We brainstorm. Just the two of us. He shoots. Collin’s Barracks. God. That’s hardly going to fill the void of the West. Nope. I shoot. A boat trip to Howth, fish & chip lunch. God. Cold and most likely wet. Nope. He shoots. An overnight in a hotel. God. We’ve a dog, remember? And no car to get anywhere. He takes another shot. A dog friendly hotel? God. I can smell it already. Nope. I shoot. A train to Rosslare, a fish & chip lunch. Back home to the dog. God. Too much hassle altogether. Beads of sweat begin to form. We’ve both taken annual leave for the week. Precious, beautiful annual leave. Stressed to the hilt. We need a lie down.
Right. Back to it. I shoot. I’d really love to get them all to the theatre. He lights up a touch. I search. I find it. A show for four days only, with a Hallowe’en theme. Perfect. In the Gaiety. Superb. At night. How very exciting. We book. The price of an overnight in a hotel. Oh well. But just think of the memories. I pinch myself. We won’t tell them. We’ll take them into Town for a bite to eat and hit them with the surprise. I’m semi-nauseous with excitement. This break will not be a damp squib after all.
We herd them into Captain America’s on Grafton Street. I haven’t been here since I was a kid and I can’t believe we’ve failed to do this with them already. One of Bono’s guitars sits above us on the wall. I get up to read the other memorabilia, Van Morrison and the like as they sip coke floats. I’m beaming like a Cheshire Cat. It’s a perfect start to the evening. Childhood memories flick past too – my best friend, her Dad and me in here having ice-cream Sundaes after Jaws.
‘Can you please tell us where we’re going after this?’ It’s hard to refuse a polite request. I look at the other parent. He looks at me. He nods. I tell.
‘We’re going to take you to the Gaiety theatre to see The Exorcist’. Ta-dah.
Marque 3 is nodding.
‘The Exorcist?’ He’s a little pale.
‘Yes, a play of it. It’s been on in the West End. Brilliant reviews. Can’t wait’.
He keeps nodding, in a sort of parental way. Like when a parent is pretending to see your point of view, but is going to say no anyway.
‘You’ve seen the film, right?’ he asks.
‘Of course we have, it’s going to be amazing to watch how they do it all on stage. Sooo excited’.
We scoot to the theatre via the Asian food market – their favourite place in town. Popping candy and funny flavoured drinks are bought. We’re ready to adventure on. We arrive in the foyer early and go on up to the bar to kill the time before we’re let in. It’s in the bar as we glance around and seem to be glanced at rather a lot that we notice it. The severe lack of children. Maybe they’re not here yet. We try to squish ourselves into anonymity but everywhere we stand we just seem to stick out and the interest in us is palpable.
‘Look’ marque 4 whispers to me. ‘A teacher’. I look over. Sure enough there she is, a teacher from marque 5’s primary school, looking with pronounced interest in our direction. God.
‘It’s a Hallowe’en show, put on in the children’s Hallowe’en break. What are you all staring at?’ I feel like shouting, but don’t. Creating memories, remember?
We retreat into the welcome arms of the upper circle and claim our seats. The children are very taken with the magnificent ceiling and chandelier. They snap merrily for Instagram while I wonder if we’re too high up and far away from the stage. For this perfect family occasion perhaps we should’ve booked the grand circle instead. I scan around to see if any other children have arrived yet. Nope. Then out of nowhere there’s a loud explosive bang. I scream, naturally, and it takes a moment for it to register that this is not a bomb, nor the ancient grand circle collapsing with exhaustion. It is in fact the start of the show. The kids are laughing in a slightly eye bulging sort of way. I retell it to myself. An excellent Hallowe’en fright to kick us off.
The curtain goes back and the actors emerge and not too soon after that I’m thanking my lucky stars that we’re so high up and far away. High enough up and far enough away not to be able to see too clearly. Especially if you’re only ten. Or only thirteen. Or even only fourteen. Or, let’s face it, sixteen. While I have a clear memory of levitation, spinning heads, shaking beds and projectile vomit from the film, I must’ve blocked out certain other parts. When the excellent actor playing 12 year old Regan pisses on the floor, well that’s okay. They watch Little Britain after all. What starts to come out of her mouth is far from okay. Pity the sound isn’t diminished by distance. I shrink down in my seat while adult couples all around us grab one another in fright and I try but fail to shove a coat over marque 5’s face as a crucifix wreaks havoc with said 12 year old’s nether regions. She thrusts and blood spurts and marque 3 turns towards me for just a second. Told ya, he seems to say, pale still, but thankfully he’s too kind to actually come out with it. As Sir Ian McKellan’s excellent demon voice rebounds to Regan’s mouth I whip out the tickets and examine them. At the bottom, in small-ish print I see it. ‘Recommended for 18+’. Brilliant.
We scurry out of the theatre, heads down, trying not to bump straight into the teacher from marque 5’s school.
‘Wasn’t that a wonderful unforgettable thing to do on the Hallowe’en break’ I say cheerfully when we’re all sitting at the back of the bus. No one seems to hear me. They’ve retreated to YouTube, and a semi-hysteria has set in. Tears are falling to laughter as a drunk guy scowls in the corner, annoyed by the post-traumatic gaiety.
It’s one of those moments that could change everything. A Sunday evening and a stray school bag or two must be retrieved from the boot. I know it should be a Friday afternoon thing but I resist whenever I can. A warped defiance of sorts overcomes me. I’m in cahoots with the boys. Leave the wretched bags in the car. Let them smoulder in the blast of early summer. Let the crusts harden. The cores wither and tan. The petit filous cartons grow an unhealthy bout of bacteria. I don’t give a damn.
So out I go, weakening at the last. Not leaving it altogether until Monday morning. Our lovely little dog follows me. He’s been out of sorts all day. A bit of vomit. A bit of leaking fluid whilst asleep – and asleep with one eye open. The boys are worried. A couple of them follow us out too. They think a vet is in order. They panic and fuss over him like a parent over a new born. ‘We’ll see how he is tomorrow’ I tell them with all the assurance of a wise old bird.
He potters a little and hovers beside me as I tug a leaden bag out of the boot. Always at my side. But then it happens. He takes off like lightening, up the hill and away from us. I call his name which he dutifully ignores. I screech ‘a little bit of ham’ – his reward for being good. He speeds up, in the wrong direction. Marque 2 acts, as he always does in an emergency. He doesn’t speak. He just does. He sprints after him. At the top of our quiet road is a very busy main road. Not to mention a nightmare junction. I jump into the car, turn the keys, and realise something’s not quite right. A haze of sorts. Bloody glasses are in the house. I blurt the news while grabbing them and run back out, followed now by all. They run, barefoot. I drive. I’m gripped by the white knuckle fear of it. Of him being squished. Of one of them running out to save him, unable to stop themselves. Of one of them coming a cropper too.
As we find out later Marque 2 reaches the main road with the dog well ahead. As he’s very attached to me – the dog that is – marque 2 decides to use this as a lure.
‘Mummy Mummy Mummy Mummy Mummy’ he hollers as he runs at top speed along the busy road. People stop and stare. A tall skinny teenager sprinting like mad and calling for his mother. Poor sod. The dog slows for a second, reconsidering his escape plan, then he dips out of sight and re-emerges to the horror of marque 2, running across the road at the 4 way junction.
‘Mummy Mummy Mummy…’
He runs on. Marque 2 raises his hands to oncoming traffic and sprints after him across the junction. He doesn’t care. He’s visible, he reckons. Not so squish-able. The dog is making a bee-line straight for the local vet. Something which, even in his stricken state, marque 2 finds vaguely amusing. He stops to relieve himself – the dog that is. A little piss up against the vet’s wall and marque 2 swoops in. Horns blast. Other dog lovers wishing him well.
I get to the top of the road in the car and stop. All my other boys are standing there staring. It’s bad, I think. Very bad. They’ve just witnessed something horrendous. I should never have let them go. Horrible schoolbags left in the car, proving a point, has led to this. Stupid, stupid me. Then a golden marque 3 turns towards the car and I think I can’t look. I’ll just drop my head onto the wheel and not see whatever this is. Before I get the chance though his hand goes up, a thumb standing proud. He’s nodding and smiling at me. A minute later marque 2 rounds the corner, dog in arms. He climbs into the car beside me. White as a sheet. Beads of sweat frozen on his face. He tells it all, there and then. The blind fear. The fact that if it hadn’t gone well, he’d have always blamed himself. He’d always think he could’ve run just that little bit faster. And with his birthday in a couple of days. Imagine, he says. Just imagine what kind of a birthday that would be.
Marque 2 has saved the day countless times. He spots peril like no other. At seven he plucked a face down floating toddler from a deep pool, wading in fully clad and grabbing him by the hood, dragging him safely back to shore. He acts calmly in the moment, in a trance like state, knowing exactly what to do. Then he allows himself a little crumbling, when all is safe and well. Sugar for shock. According to marque 1, this brother has also just saved his leaving cert. A mown down much loved pet would’ve exacted disaster in this realm.