Antidotes to coronavirus angst
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.
The long goodbye
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.
So thank you.
Happy sweet sixteen.
‘With all change comes growth’. I mutter this, on repeat, for the benefit of my children – or myself – as their father sets sail across the sea to his new job.
It’s a mantra I learnt when working on a team alongside lovely family therapist. Only then I was in my 20s and the idea of lots of change and growth had a certain appeal.
This wasn’t the first mantra that came to mind as the story of the semi-emigration began to unfold. Little less philosophically rich things raced to the fore. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ style things. I tried them out on some pals. Both versions. It’ll be good. It’ll be not so good. It’ll mean we can do this. It’ll mean we can’t do that. It’s a new horizon. Who needs a new horizon? I’m a master at the art of balancing out my own arguments and reaching a lovely stalemate. They nudged, these pals, gently, listening and reframing, providing little gems that I could draw on later. I’d been given the casting vote, you see. If it was going to be unmanageable this end, me flying solo with a job and the five kids, then we’d do something else. If I could hack it then we’d do it. But how do you know if you can hack it? How can we tell the toll that this might take on me, on him, on us, on the family?
As with other key decisions I’ve made, or been part of making, in the end a strong leap of faith kicks in and I feel it just like that – as if I’m hurtling towards an inevitable cliff edge and taking a leap, expecting to soar, not to fall. It works out well in the main. This leap is a little bit more risky than most though. It’s a timing thing. The new opportunity coincides beautifully with Brexit. #Brentrance. He might be after a Blue Passport courtesy of being married to me. Sweet.
We do a TKMaxx new suit run for the traveller. He buys shiny new boots. I suggest a lovely Sunday walk. Our Sundays will never be the same again I think and try not to say out loud. Knocking around taking it easy, strolling by the sea with outdoor market food, until the dreaded hunt for the school stuff begins at night. No. From now on we’ll also be preparing for him to leave. Packing. Checking. Rechecking. Repacking. I let it slip. The tip of my thoughts.
‘It’s not as if I’m off to an oil-rig for six months’ he says which works not a jot.
‘We’ll be on borrowed time. From now on. You’ll sail home for the weekend only and in our heads, always, it’ll be there looming…The pace of everything will be altered, cramming in our fun, never meeting for lunch during the week…’ We’d had it pretty good of late. Work flexibility, a marvellous thing. I’d get the kids ready for school and he’d drop them in. I’d get to work on time. He’d pick me up at lunch time and we’d get something to eat out. Especially when we knew the change was coming. Every day we’d have a date lunch. Utterly unsustainable, but hey. The lovely lady in a little Japanese place got to know us so well that when we failed to go there one week she was concerned about us. Asked us what had happened the next time we saw her. Worried eyes breaking into a twinkle when she was reassured that all was well. No more holding hands over the Bento box when the semi-emigration kicks in, I mumble. Even though the decision has been made, the leap taken, the little niggles burst through, uselessly. I must remember my mantra. There’s an upside for the waistline in all of this after all.
I declare to my work colleagues that my start time will be half an hour later from now on and I’ll work it off the other end. And that my availability for attending mid-week conferences and events will be limited. And if a kid is sick… And if someone has an appointment… And if… The ‘with all change comes growth’ doesn’t seem to apply here. I’ll need to stymie myself for a while. Just as I was getting my wings back I think and try hard not to say but it squeezes on through anyway. Just a little rumble.
It’s the kids who encourage us on. They see no barriers. They have full faith that I’ll manage everything fine here and it’ll be an adventure to have their father flying away every week and back for the weekend. Some of them plan to visit him, an adventure for them. He runs with their enthusiasm, wonders if I’ll be able to visit him too (eh how now?).
The alarm is set for the middle of the night and we both get up, checking, repacking, rechecking. He dresses in a new suit. New shirt. New shoes. Old tie. A good luck thing. We drive to the airport bus. The only other creatures out are the foxes. A soft drizzle descends as he alights the bus and I turn the keys in the ignition, humming my mantra all the way home.
Had I known it was Blue Monday I might’ve acted a little differently. Softened the blows for them instead of taking them on, toughening them up for the real world.
Late on the Sunday night marque 4 approaches me. ‘I forgot to do my research on Gandhi. Can you wake me at 6.40 and I’ll do it then?’
A serious business, this 6th class lark. They’ve been researching key historical figures and having debates about them. A novel approach and we like it. I prepare for the morning. Five uniforms/PE gear. Which reminds me. There was talk about swapping PE for uniform for marque 5. A choir day. I’ll double check in the morning.
It arrives, sooner than we’d all like, and I start into it. Lunchboxes. Fresh sandwiches. Some day I’ll cop on and do this the night before I promise myself each morning. Although I have improved somewhat. There was a time when I baked rolls for their lunchboxes in the morning. Blessed is this unfurling maturity.
I go to wake him. Whispering cruelly into the dark, dark room. He stirs not a jot. Then I hear another woman’s voice.
‘Time to get up for Gandhi’ she says. She’s louder than me. More assertive. Clearer. ‘Stop’ he calls out. She doesn’t. She says it again instead, as if she hasn’t heard him at all. Persistent as hell. I’m picking up a trick or two. ‘Stop Alexa’ he implores. I leave them to it. Gandhi, Gandhi she says. She’ll have him up in no time. I jump into the shower, and then linger. It’s a cold old morning after all.
‘Mu-um, you didn’t wake me up’. It isn’t a roar exactly. An undulating whine of sorts.
‘Yes I did’.
‘No you didn’t and now I don’t have my research done’. The tears are thick and fast. Furious indignant tears.
‘I did wake you and so did Alexa and you told her to stop’. Ah sure it’s great deferring responsibility onto a robot.
‘What kind of a mother won’t wake her own child to do research?’
Say what now?
‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll write you a note’.
‘You don’t understand. It doesn’t work like that in SIXTH class’.
‘Well, if you think you’re getting a day off because you forgot all weekend to do your work and then you wouldn’t get up for me or Alexa – you can think again’.
Floodgates. A change of tack required.
‘Okay so let’s get some research done now instead’. I shoot a meaningful look at a competent person who immediately asks his phone to tell us all about Gandhi while toast and marmite is being chewed. There’s a sudden crescendo of a wail.
‘Not the GOOD stuff – NO – I need the BAD stuff about Gandhi’.
The what now?
‘Mum have you seen my tie?’ Marque 2 stands before me, bedecked in his shirt, jumper and trousers. He hasn’t been in school since before Christmas courtesy of Transition Year work experience. Over a month now since we had all the bits together. The tie could be anywhere, little slip of a thing. I hunt. Run up and down the stairs to ill effect. He’s dying to get back into school to hear about and share the work experiences. Something as simple as a lost tie will thwart it. His excellent reports/references from the jobs lie waiting for him to pack. We’re all organised, except…
‘Mum is it uniform or PE today?’ Oh god, I was supposed to check.
‘Can you remember what the teacher said?’
‘Yeah, no, I don’t no. We have choir with the girls and then we’ll have PE on Friday instead’.
‘So it’s uniform today?’
‘I don’t know’.
Hell. I send out a WhatsApp message. I get a confirmation that it’s uniform. Phew. Thank god for WhatsApp on occasion.
A red and black tie glints at me from an unfamiliar pile and I seize it while the dirt is dished on Gandhi. Getting there.
‘Mum, have you seen my shoes?’
‘They’ll be in your room, as always’.
‘They’re not. I’ve checked’. He knots his tie while I search. The dread comes quickly. Didn’t we do a big clear-out of the room over Christmas. They could’ve been put anywhere.
‘Just wear your runners, sure what does it matter, you’re in TY.’
‘You don’t understand, it doesn’t work like that…’
He mutters and I mutter. I’ll be late for work searching for shoes for a – what age is it you are now? Little bits of blame are bandied. They do it so well, mimicking their mother, great role model that she is.
Hang on a second, I begin to think. How has it come to this? Have we not just had a wonderful weekend? Was that not us last night, out on the West pier chasing the full moon for the best photographs, searching for a premature hint of the magical rare eclipse? All five boys, mother, father and the dog. How has it gone from that to searing blood pressure and cortisol, tears and dismay?
They all leave except the shoeless one, so I can’t quite sigh with relief. I crunch on muesli which doesn’t taste so good with a thudding heart so I swallow some fish oils and hope for the best. I try to match up some of the father’s old shoes to no avail. I close the front door behind me and breathe a deep dissatisfied breath.
As I hang up my coat in work I notice a WhatsApp message.
‘I’m so sorry, I mis-read your text.’ Turns out it was PE gear after all for marque 5. He’ll be the only one in a uniform, mortified, singing all day long with some unknown girls’ schools. Fantastic.
Is it possible to feel any worse? I’ve failed three of them – and probably the others but they’re just not saying – at the very start of the week. It’s over tea-break that it becomes crystal clear. The talk is all about Blue Monday. A super high absenteeism day. A day for diving under the duvet and indulging the low on this, the most depressing day of the year. Something I hadn’t paid any attention to before. But next year I’ll be up all night preparing. Shoes and ties and Gandhi galore. I’ll ease them over it and take a day off for myself too. I swear.
‘Yeah but he doesn’t have separation anxiety’ the nine year old declares as he gets out of the car. He’s just told us a story about a boy who accidentally left his house keys inside the house and then couldn’t get in after school.
‘He had to wait outside for two hours for someone to come home’. The story doesn’t quite stack up. The child is the same age as my youngest. A long chalk off a latch key kid. But we roll with it.
‘So your friend goes home by himself and lets himself in and no-one’s there? Wow, how very grown up. Soon you’ll be able to do that’.
‘Yeah but he doesn’t have separation anxiety’. The niggle begins.
How come he’s heard of that? Has some mother around here been muttering it a little too loudly? The dog has it. We all know and accept that. It’s me he’s chosen to focus his anxiety on, running and hiding when he sees me putting perfume on, signalling my departure. Then sitting pining in the window for all the work hours until I walk up the drive again. Full on hysteria then. Cute. Kind of. The child though, what’s going on with him?
‘I think it’s because, you know, you fed him for too long?’ Sage yet tentative words from an all seeing marque 3. One is never quite sure how a mother might react to a little bit of criticism. Must look that up though. The ill effects of prolonged breastfeeding. Acute onset life-long separation anxiety. I mutter it at the school gate. Okay so maybe I blurt it for all to hear.
‘What do you mean you didn’t think I was coming, I’m always here, every (bloody) day, standing (like a lemon) just here. You’re out early today – look at my phone, it’s 14.24 and you’re due out at 14.25 – and I was just saying hello to another Mum (Jesus can’t I even say hello to another Mum?) and now you’re, wait are you actually crying? When you know that I’m here or just about here and’…
Psychologically provocative gems such as these just trip off the tongue. I might, while I’m at it, ask him to remind me what age he is, in case I’ve had some sort of time travel event, and he’s actually a junior infant and not a fourth class boy, the friends of whom reportedly waltz home and let themselves in with their own keys.
It does really seem to be a deep seated fear though, a panic that assaults him if he can’t see me and it doesn’t tally with the rest of his character. He’s sunny. A joker. Always seeing the fun in things. Always in the moment. Loads of friends. Makes his teachers laugh – in a good way – they tell me. So I have to wonder if I am feeding the little chink in his armour by always turning up, standing at the same spot, beaming at him as he emerges and clocks me, full on eye contact from across the car park. What if, I ask him often, perhaps daily, I am a little late some time?What’s the worst that can happen? You find your brother and wait. That’s the worst that can happen.
What if it’s lashing rain, and I could sit in the car and not get drenched and you could walk around to me? You know, walk just around the corner to where I park, each and every day?
It falls on deaf ears.
‘Can you please, please just be there when I come out?’
‘We’ll see’ I say, thinking it’s healthier to keep a little doubt going, but knowing as well as he does that I will be there. Of course I will. I’ll run all the way if I have to, to save myself from seeing that tear resting on his little cheek.
Then one day I’m at my spot, bantering inanely to another mother – someone I’ve never met before. We race through a few hot topics. I land on the reason why I’m here, at the primary school gate, even though after 13 years it may seem a little implausible.
‘He just has to see me, you know, as soon as he comes out. A separation anxiety thing I think. He gets really upset if he doesn’t clock me straight away’.
I’m in the middle of this spiel when he sails across the road with the lollipop lady.
‘Eh, Mum, is it okay if I walk around with my with friends today – they’re over there?’ and he points back across the road.
‘Oh, why yes, of course it is sweetheart’ I say, beaming at him as I notice my new acquaintance looking down at him and then back at me, quizzically.
‘Well, what d’ya know?’ I say to her as he runs back across the road and she deduces that it must be the mother who has the separation anxiety and won’t let her child have a smidgeon of independence, he has to beg for it, the poor little thing. She sidles off in silence taking note to avoid me at all costs in the future.
I celebrate with him, reinforcing this great step with a treat from the garage on the way home. The next morning as he heads off he locks eyes with me again.
‘Be there, won’t you, at your spot? Please? I’ll pay you’ he says and he strolls off to his labours with my laughter accompanying him across on the wind.
Lean on me
We kick off on a dangerous high. Sitting outside a pub on the day we arrive, surrounded by a deep blue cloudless sky, the sun belting down singeing fragile skin, I pinch myself. I offer to pinch others too. We are here, like actual tourists, taking the sun for granted. This is not something we’ve ever been able to do. Not really. Usually on the day of arrival, if the weather is half decent we hot-tail it off to the beach. Lest we don’t see the like again for the whole holiday. Today we sit, taking our time, confident that there is more of this to come. The silver metal chairs scorch holiday makers bums and legs. We prattle proudly to all around, the dog drawing Americans and French and English towards us as we declare our nationality, and yes that this is our beautiful land, bask and enjoy as we will these coming weeks.
‘I can’t believe it’ I say, over and over. Having not actually had a sun holiday since the year after we married, and we’re heaving up to the big 20 on that front, my pinch is one of smug satisfaction. All good things to those who wait.
The pinching is beginning to hurt. The first beach day surpasses anything we could have dreamt up. Devoid of tourists. Turquoise swims. Barbecues. Frisbee. Boules. Cold dry cider. Marque 1 snaps us, the happy couple out on the rocks, imbibing this foreign land. Sun set is full on Greek island style. ‘You see?’ we keep chanting. Or maybe it’s just me. ‘You see how bloody lucky we are?’ I know this is a dangerous way to think, and really these thoughts ought to be silent. But I just can’t help it. We have all the bases covered for a holiday of a life-time. One during which our children will become remorseful for ever heavily hinting that we must abandon this great beauty for a week in another land.
Day three, we just arrive at the beach and the luminous yellow super flying frisbee is cast expertly by marque 4, taking off like a space-ship climbing high into the sky before sailing out across the ocean and landing. Within reach. We think. Marque 2 strips down to the boxers and runs. I strip down to something or other and run. There’s a history to this frisbee thing you see. A birthday present for marque 4, the original one had been cast by marque 3 into a garden we have no access to. He felt rotten and stopped off in Galway city to buy a replacement out of his pocket money. €15. A better one, we all agree, than the original. It turns out that marque 2 and I make a good frisbee saving team. I spot it. He dives and retrieves. Claps and whooshes resound. The day continues. A cousin joins the boys. Laughter. Merriment. A thousand swims. The day ends with a frisbee throwing game in the water. The wind takes it and deposits it beyond reach. Oh well.
Day four, we shop and pack for the beach, arriving to a crystal clear water, better than yesterday.
‘Perhaps we’ll be able to spot it from the rocks today’ I say, beginning to unpack. Some of them take off to look. He takes the dog along too. The kids arrive back at the car announcing the lack of joy at spotting it. We begin to strip. We’ve timed full tide perfectly and can’t wait a second longer. Then a shrill whistle hits our ears. A whistle he uses to gather the troops. I look over and see his hat and head peeping above the rocks, an arm motioning, waving. A little odd.
‘He must’ve found it’ I announce, sending them scarpering back towards their father. I fiddle with straps, wondering if I’ll be swimming off out to it, imagining their delight as I emerge victorious once again.
Marque 2 is back at my side, talking in a calm even way, whispering almost. Tempering me.
‘Dad has fallen and hit his head and he can’t move his ankle’. We run together over to the rocks and clamber down to him where he sits, dazed and grazed in a pool of water. I rub his head and ask some questions which I’ve heard the medics asking my father after a fall.
To ascertain whether something precipitated the tumble. A systemic event is ruled out by this non- medic. Phew. But what happened remains a mystery. I scan around hoping for clues, wondering how the hell we’re going to get him up from here. The car is a dot over the hill. The beach is, as ever, devoid of lovely helpful tourists. While I wonder, marque 2 and 3 switch into action. Being the same height as one another and only a short inch off him, they shoulder crutch him, slowly, beautifully, back to relative safety.
‘I thought we’d be doing this when you’re 80’ one of them announces, cheering us all up.
It’s over to the other adult to make some serious decisions and somehow, once we’re back at the car and the leg is usefully propped and perched, it all seems kind of okay. He’s happy with it, letting on he is anyway. He says nothing is broken, that he’d know. It’s probably the calf muscle he reckons. Which sounds pretty manageable to me.
‘Should we go ahead and barbecue and see how it is in a while?’ I ask, but it’s not a real question.
‘Sure’ he says, but it’s not a real answer.
‘Cider?’ I ask, now that we’re all back on track and the day will go on.
‘No thanks’ he says, wincing.
I flip the chicken burgers merrily as the kids swim. Sure it will probably just correct itself, I think, or possibly announce. Just a little pulled muscle. Bloody rocks. Bloody frisbee. But sure, no real harm done on this, the holiday of a life-time. We can call into a GP and get it strapped, if needs be, later on – if we get back from the beach on time.
He’s not quite joining in though. The appetite’s not great, it seems.
Marque 3 takes me aside. He fixes me with a look that reminds me very much of my father. A serious sort of piercing intelligent look.
‘I don’t want to be the one to have to say this Mum, but I really really think we need to get Dad seen’.
‘Oh yes, we’ll see how it goes, he thinks it’s getting better, he says, but sure if not we’ll get him to a doctor later’.
As the day draws to a close they crutch him into the car for me to drive us bumpily across the headland and all the way home. Crutching him into the house is a little more stressful, steps and narrow paths, but they make it. Then I whip out my phone and try the local hospital to see if they can strap his leg. He’s invited instead to see the on-call Doctor at the hospital at 10 o’clock at night. We are delighted. The day was good. The leg will be attended to. We don’t have to go to Galway city. Yippee.
They shoulder him into the local hospital. We banter with a lovely local young man who had taken a tumble off his quad-bike. And his wife who, at 35 weeks pregnant, had slipped on some furniture polish her two year old had helpfully sprayed all over the floor. Down on her back she went, only herself and the wee helper in the house. All sorts of things flashed in slow motion before her, as they do she tells us.
‘It’s the day of great falls’ she says, laughing, which fizzes a little delight in me. We’re not the only ones.
The doc calls him and the boys shoulder him in and I stay chatting to the couple until a shriek from inside tells me that I am, actually, needed as well. The doc has him kneeling up and has just squeezed his calf muscle. He’s not happy with it. Nobody in the room is happy with it.
He calls me ‘wife’ in a jocular way to good effect.
‘Wife, can you pull his trousers off there?’
‘Wife, can you just feel here on his good leg, and then in the same place on the sore leg’.
I do as I’m told. Such a good wife. There’s a nice solid feel to his good leg and a gap where my fingers sink in on his sore leg.
‘Any difference?’ he asks and I know now that this is a game changer. We’re not getting away with it after all.
‘The Achilles’ tendon has snapped’ he announces and simultaneously the colour drains from the injured party’s face. The doctor goes into vivid detail about the ins and outs of this injury as my husband announces that he feels faint and the doc tells the wife to hold his head up, not to let him fall, while he fetches some water. He does blood injuries really well, my husband, but the idea of something being snapped, bone or otherwise, has a visceral effect, sending him waxen, ageing him temporarily before our eyes.
He pulls back from the faint precipice. The doc continues. He hasn’t made the link between his detailed descriptions and tipping the injured party over the edge.
‘Sure I had a friend, and it was the same thing, it just snapped, he heard a loud pop and’… I’m shaking my head vigorously at the doctor from behind my husband as if he’s a child that needs to be protected from the truth.
‘He wasn’t even doing anything, it just went spontaneously’, he chimes on.
‘Spontaneously?’ I feel my husband sitting up a little straighter. ‘Can it go just like that? I thought it was something I had done’, he says and the Doc’s eyes widen with concern.
‘No, no this is not your fault’ he says. My husband’s lips and face are now both sporting a normal hue. There’s no guilt allowed in this doctor’s room. Just as well. He had been feeling the burden of the fate of the holiday being drastically altered at a foolish wrong turn of his foot. Not so.
The reality begins to kick in, finally, as the kids might say. The doctor asks for details for his referral to the big hospital in the city. Date of birth. He announces it.
‘Are you serious?’ the doc says.
‘But sure that’s my date of birth, same date and year’. He pushes his chair back from the desk and beams at my husband. Then he gets up and goes over to him to shake his hand.
‘I’ve never met anyone who shares this’ he says and they laugh, these twinned-up kindred spirits. He finishes the letter and won’t take any money from us, not with that little bit of serendipity.
‘Tonight or tomorrow’ he says. ‘You can leave it until tomorrow, if you like. There might be a better team in the morning anyhow’ and he shakes all our hands, compliments the boys on the great job they’ve done today and whispers to me his parting shot.
‘Mind this lovely man’.
‘I think I deserve a pint’ he says as soon as the boys get him safely back. First though, he agrees that we need to plan for the morning. Do I drive him? 92 kilometres, an hour and twenty. If so do we bring all the kids? Or do I drive and return to the kids? Can I just leave him there? What kind of a wife would just leave him there, I think, heavily influenced by our new doctor friend. We’ve no idea how long this might take though. Does he get a taxi? Is it too late for an ambulance? I take a toilet break and return to the solution focused room. There’s a bus to the hospital at 8.15 in the morning. Marque 1 will take him. I’m to stay out here with the kids. Although I can take the two of them to the bus, to feel somewhat useful, if I like. The bus, they say is door to door, practically. They’ve done it before. The same team. A different injured party.
‘All sorted’ he says. ‘Now let’s get that pint’.
They crutch him across to the pub and we sit, this, the whole clan, pinching ourselves in another way now. The holiday will be different and we don’t know how it will all pan out. Whether he’ll need surgery or not. Whether we’ll return to Dublin instead. How long he might be in a cast or a boot and on crutches for. But it could’ve been so much worse. He could’ve hit his head and slipped away quietly down into the ocean, joining the wretched frisbee, while we changed into our togs and noticed not a thing.