© Embe Byron
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The Salty Smell of Periwinkles
(Please note that dashes appear as question marks in the middle of sentences - not intended)
It is a typical Irish June day; the day that Hubert plans to dishonour his marriage vows. A soft rain has smothered the bushes in glassy droplets; the eucalyptus tree swells its minty fingers, shivering in the mild breeze. Minuscule beads, each of them identical, skate off leaves and cling to their dampened underbellies before they fall splat to the ground.
More rain, more grass to cut.
It occurs to Hubert that every particle of nature knows its place and attends to it with easy and comforting certainty. Humans, on the other hand, clash and clank their way through life; they pull the rug from under each other and crash land when they are most needed.
He slips out the patio doors when nobody is looking. In sickness and in health, he mutters to himself. The house is teeming with people. People in uniform. People whose names he has already forgotten ? except for Maria, the home help. She has been visiting Rosie for over six months now. Maria is lecturing the hospice staff; they are taking it well considering they are the experts. She is insisting that Rosie has her little wash and her hair combed before the ambulance moves her. Rosie will take a shower for Maria but not a bath, not for weeks now. Not since she remembered she can’t swim.
Hubert has refused all offers of respite care for Rosie up to now, but these recent months have been the hardest yet. She needs oxygen more often, but it’s not that. It’s that fact that her mind is settled somewhere in the past; somewhere a man named Vinnie belongs. Somewhere Rosie wants to be. Somewhere Hubert can’t go, and can’t provide the answers Rosie wants from him. Hubert has to put Rosie in a nursing home to find out. So much for the promise he made fifty-three years before.
‘And who the hell is Vinnie?’ he asks the green bin as he passes.
Hips rubbing like a pocketful of marbles, he carefully steps down onto the path. Both Tommy and Eamon wanted to be here to help see their mother off to the nursing home. That’s all he needs. Arms slung around his shoulders. Feeling as desperate inside as he is, but coming over all sympathy with him as the hospice people wheel her out. Rosie knows her two sons but imagines them younger. Imagines them needing her again. Rosie wanting to pull the mask off so that she can get their dinner. Who does that help? They say that your family carries you along at a time like this, supports you, but the thought of an invasion is not to Hubert’s liking – interfering, intrusive, insidious, he grumbles in familiar threesomes. He finally agreed on Tommy and Tommy’s youngest, Mattie. Tommy’s wife, Carmel, stayed back in Galway with their eldest, Rory.
For now, even if it’s only for a few minutes, Hubert needs to quieten himself, to find himself and Rosie again.
He’s not lame, but when you’re born long, you grow up lanky, and tall as you’d like to stay, you need to stoop a lot to a shorter person’s height. As the years go on it’s harder to straighten. That’s where the stick comes in: it helps to keep him upright.
Puddles pock the footpath from the recent shower, so he takes it handy. Tap. Step. Splat. Tap. Step. Splat. Not too many points in Scrabble for that threesome, he thinks. He’s heading for the shed and once he is the other side of that hydrangea bush, he’ll be invisible from the house. Hah, that was some shock that year he and Rosie went to Galway for a week. Tommy had insisted on getting a tree doctor to tidy up the garden while they were away. Doctor! He was more likely a butcher. He beheaded their eucalyptus tree, scalped several branches off the maple and dug out Rosie’s beloved hydrangea. Soon as they saw the carnage, she’d insisted that Hubert drive her to the garden centre where she bought another blue flowering one and she planted it right back into the bog hole that the so-called doctor had left in their garden. It’s now as high, wide and dishevelled as the original was.
That bloody dog next door is barking again. Axel – what a ridiculous name for the little mongrel. A toe of a boot would sort him out. Hubert uses the hook of his stick to lift a low branch of the maple out of his way and his reward is a generous dribble of rainwater that skids off his bare head and drips inside the collar of his jacket.
He’s shivering a bit as he closes the shed door behind him. He can handle their Tommy. Tommy’s as stubborn as his father is, so Hubert has his mark. They’ll let the odd shout fly at each other, but Eamon is another matter altogether.
Hubert wants a bit of peace, so he turns down his hearing aid. Rosie whispers in his ear. Let Eamon be. She’s always liked their youngest’s soft side. Didn’t he come good in recent years, she says. Hubert remembers the first time Eamon brought Simon home – his partner. God between us and all harm. Rosie told him that if he didn’t act civil, she would move upstairs again. He doubted it at the time because her knees wouldn’t be up to it, and she’d have nobody to warm her cold feet on. He didn’t chance it all the same.
Whatever, there is no way Simon is going to share a room with Eamon under his roof. He didn’t let Carmel and Tommy do it before they were married and neither are that pair. Not ever in fact. Simon is big and soft, and their Eamon is a skinny wire of a man who is forever running the streets or doing whatever they do in the gym. What do they see in each other? Doesn’t bear thinking about.
Hubert’s taken a notion to look through some old albums to see if he can place this Vinnie character. Only he picked up their wedding album by mistake. Their first photograph together fell out, and he’s put it in his top pocket for safekeeping. The shed’s not the same these days. He’s had to move everything up to the top shelf out of the youngest’s way. Granted he only tricks around with the odd project now, but when things are parked out of the way, they lose the lure they once had.
It’s raining again, a downpour pinging on the tin roof. It’s promising to be a beautiful day though, Rosie, a haymaking day.
He’ll have to go in soon, but not for a while. He reaches up for some old newspapers to cover his stool and keep his trousers clean. Rosie insisted that he buy new ones for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. He’s lost some weight since. He’s like the teenagers she complains about. If he didn’t have his braces, his trousers would be hanging off his hips and his Y fronts showing.
The whites of his eyes have turned yellow like the liquid in his spirit level, and his salted eyebrows hang heavy as catkins. “I’m old and the mirrors don’t lie.” Rosie’s friend, Leonard Cohen sings in his ear.
Hubert sits down and eases the trousers legs over his knees. Tommy tells him that he always buys suits with two pairs of trousers in Marks and Spencers because the knees wear. If Tommy hoisted them up when he sat down, they wouldn’t wear. Nobody fixes things or mends them anymore.
Now Hubert’s roosted, he takes his reading glasses out of his top pocket and settles them on a nose the shape of a butternut squash. He dips into his pocket and extracts the photograph, careful to hold it around the corners. Black and white, the edges curled up where Rosie pasted it onto the page. There was a photographer in the Hall that night and he snapped them. Remember, Rosie?
The shed door creaks, the spell broken. He puts the photo back in his inside pocket.
Mattie appears at the door. There’s a full ten years between him and his skulking older brother. Hubert has no idea what to say to the fifteen-year-old, not that he’s asked for his opinion. Mattie now – he looks as if the sunshine has encased him, just like that statue of Jesus that Rosie likes, with the spokes of light coming off him.
Because it’s Mattie, Hubert turns on his hearing aid. He pockets the glasses.
‘Granddad they are looking for you everywhere,’ he says with big worried eyes.
No young lad should be that earnest. How are they bringing them up these days? When he was young, their Tommy ran out of the house in the morning and they didn’t see him again ’til suppertime. He had the run of the fields and lanes and he came to no harm.
‘Tell them I fell down a rabbit hole, Mattie,’ Hubert grumbles. Mattie’s creased forehead could break your heart.
‘Will I, Granddad? I don’t think Daddy will believe me.’
‘Do you want to play hide and seek with me then?’
Mattie needs no further prompting. With a cursory glance over his shoulder, he reaches up behind him and pulls the door closed.
The shed is dim again, the perspex window grubby with spiders’ webs.
‘What’s that?’ he says pointing at the album by his granddad’s feet.
‘They’re pictures of me and your Granny, Rosie. Do you want to see them?’
Mattie climbs onto his Granddad’s lap and settles his bony frame hard against the old man’s ribcage, the boy a restless mass of curiosity, of excitement, of trust. It’s times like this that Hubert thinks he will manage.
He returns his glasses to his nose, lifts the album off the floor and turns to the second page. ‘There we are,’ Hubert says. ‘Your Granny is wearing a white dress and a short veil. And look at me in my dapper grey suit and white carnation.’
The photographer told us to look at him, but all I wanted to do was look at you, Rosie, to drink you in now that your father couldn't change his mind.
Mattie is beginning to wriggle, waiting out the silence. ‘Did Granny remember things then?’ he asks.
‘Your Granny can remember every promise I made and broke, Mattie. She doesn’t need reminders singing on her phone or a grand diary.’ Hubert taps the small forehead gently. ‘She has so much information in her head that she has to close a few doors or all the facts and figures would leak into each other.’
‘Like chocolate sauce on my ice-cream, Granddad?’
Ah, Jesus, Rosie, how am I supposed to do this on my own?
‘Will you leak too?’ Mattie asks, not minding that his Granddad is talking to his Granny and she’s not there.
She’s in Hubert’s head and that’s where she’ll stay. He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. ‘Nah, I’ve only a smidgen of the knowledge that your Granny has, so there’s room in this noggin for lots more. Look here,’ he says and takes the photograph from his pocket. Look how young your Granny and I once were.’
Mattie traces his finger over the faded grandparents. Then his eyes light up. ‘I learnt a new song at school, Granddad. Do you want to hear it?’
‘I most certainly do,’ Hubert says, ‘off with you.’
Mattie stands and extends his elbows out by his sides. ‘Ok, you have to watch me. Ten little ducks went out to play. Over the hills and far away. One little duck went quack, quack, quack. And nine little ducks came back, back, back.’ Two skinny arms flap in rhythm with his tune.
He inhales loudly through his mouth in preparation for the second verse, but just then, the door is yanked open again. It’s Tommy, crammed into a suit. Never mind the two pairs of trousers, he should go back and get himself measured. He hasn’t fitted into that size jacket in years.
‘Matthew, did you not hear me calling you?’
The young lad turns on his heel and disappears.
‘For heaven’s sake, Dad, we have been calling you for ages and there’s a second search party looking for Matthew. I bet that bloody hearing aid is turned off again.’
It vexes Hubert that Tommy has coupled him with a five year old. He looks at him over his glasses. ‘The bloody hearing aid is turned on for your information. That has always been your trouble, Tommy. You forget to look under your nose.’ Hubert may be deaf, but he’s still compos mentis.
Tommy takes a deep breath, his nostrils flaring, his untidy eyebrows almost touching. His father knows that he is trying to control his temper.
‘What’s the photograph?’
Hubert hands it to Tommy. ‘It’s the one from the night we met in the Hall,’ Hubert answers. To be fair to their eldest, he wells up when he sees his Mammy grinning at the camera.
‘I’d forgotten about this,’ he says and hands it back.
Hubert pops the photograph back in his breast pocket.
‘Are you coming?’ Tommy holds the door open.
‘I’m grand here for another while. It’s strange that this is where I come to be alone and it’s where I feel closest to your Mammy. Call me when the ambulance is ready to leave.’
Tommy hurries off like a scalded cat. None of this is to his liking. He thinks that his father and mother should come and live with him and Carmel in Galway. Carmel’s a nurse and can help with Rosie. She, however, agrees with Hubert that Rosie is probably best off in her own home for as long as possible. Tommy’s not convinced.
The shed fills with silence. Nobody does silence anymore. They switch it off in favour of ranting radio shows or egomaniacs spoiling for a few frames of notoriety.
Hubert picks up the album and opens it at the back. There they are on Grafton Street, as well turned out as the bank manager and his wife. Rosie is wearing the whole kit and caboodle: a feathered hat, tweed coat, leather bag, gloves and shoes, over a jacket, blouse and skirt. She’s commandeered his carnation from the day before. It has wilted a bit, but it still adorns her buttonhole.
Moreover, he has attired himself as well in his wedding suit and a tweed coat to boot. The coat would be long on a short fella. The ubiquitous cigarette is smouldering between his fingers. That’s a great word: ubiquitous. You could set it to music and trip around the floor in three-quarter time. He likes big words that trip off his tongue syllable by distinct syllable. ‘Fandango, Flamenco, Formation’ he sends the words dancing into the shed’s cobwebby corners and smiles. He’s played a lot of scrabble in the last few months – religiously turning the board so he could play Rosie’s hand – and she’d smiled when he whooped with delight at the mounting scoreboards.
The bloody door creaks again and he reluctantly lifts his head.
The big man blocks out the light entirely. ‘It’s Simon, Mr MacElhinney. May I come in for a minute?’
That’s Simon for you: eternally polite. Routinely tells you that it’s Simon, when who else would it be standing in his shoes, wearing a permanent crescent of a smile even when he is sympathising with you. The whole-moon version comes complete with peals of belly laughs and a helping of silver amalgam tooth fillings. What’s more, Hubert had specifically asked him and Eamon not to come around before the ambulance left.
‘Come in,’ Hubert grunts.
‘We thought the ambulance would be gone and you could do with some company. Is there anything I can do for you, Mr MacElhinney?’ he asks from the doorway.
Oh, there’s plenty you could do, Simon. How about you stop playing with my son’s hair and running your fingers up and down his arm. And do you really need to hold his hand so much? Now that I have the floor so to speak, I’ll say no thanks to an update on your plans to marry. Two men getting married! Whoever heard of anything so ... so odd?
Off come the glasses again. ‘No, thank you,’ he manages to say.
‘I ...I realise that this is an exceptionally hard time for you Mr MacElhinney, but I want you to know that we are here for you.’
Hubert grits his teeth. What does he bloody know? They’re all here for him and think they should steer him this way and that way. They stop talking when he comes into rooms. His house, his rooms but you’d think he was the visitor. He knows that they are talking about him; discussing what’s best for him when the time comes. Hubert’s not thinking that far ahead – or that near for that matter.
Even Paddy was at it a week ago in the pub. Paddy and Ailish live next door. They’ve all been friends since Hubert and Rosie retired to Dublin. Long enough to forget the upheaval of cross country transfers; all the work of settling the children into new schools and fashioning yet another home left to Rosie. Thankfully, Paddy doesn’t have a dog. Ailish had sat with Rosie; insisted that Hubert and Paddy wander down for a pint. Clear your head, she said to Hubert, and don’t go muddying yours, she’d warned her Paddy.
He and Paddy made themselves comfortable on bar stools; well padded with wrap around arms and back support. It’s their pitch, and he’ll claim it as long as he has the breath. They’d only stayed for the two, and Paddy had nearly spoilt the satisfaction of seeing the couple of pints settle.
‘Our Sal wants us to sell up and come live with her in Greystones,’ he says. Matter of factly, like he wasn’t protesting.
‘You’d hardly go, would you?’ Hubert had asked. ‘It’s the other side of Dublin.’
‘Say again,’ Paddy points at his hearing aid.
‘I said you’d hardly go.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought so either a year ago, but the house is too big and the property tax will probably cripple us in a few years. Anyway, we’re thinking of it. Ailish would love to be nearer Sal and the kids.’
Hubert hears a cough and then remembers that Simon is still waiting an answer. ‘Thanks, I’m fine. Close the door behind you.’
Old age and sickness. What a hateful combination. The person he thought he would rely on to steer him through the great palaver is hacking her way out of the house. He has gotten used to Rosie’s confusion; it’s the odd lucid moments he dreads. Realisation flooding her face, bolts of desperation, despair, and defeat sprinting after it. He, rushing to fill the vacuum before the questions start, wishing the unthinkable ? please God, let her forget again, quickly.
Hubert stands up slowly and takes the photograph out again. Looking at it, he’s pondering if he really does remember that Rosie wore a blue dress with white daisies; for she’s been quite the expert at planting memories that he’s come to think of as his own.
If asked when she took the reins into her own hands, Rosie would say that it was as close to the turn of the twenty first century as made no difference. Hubert - otherwise known as Sergeant Hubert, John, Pius MacElhinney - retired in early 2000, boxed up his polished boots, hung up his uniform, his yellow visor jacket, his curiosity, and, most unexpectedly, his self-sufficiency. He retained his righteous indignation – it was as essential to his being as oxygen to his lungs. It prickled his skin with goose bumps and brought into prominence a tiny, threaded vein to the right of his temple like mercury rising to boiling point.
Rosie knew she would have to make alterations if she were to spend the rest of her life with him, and spend it she would. There had been times when she had struggled, really struggled, but that had passed; not that Hubert had ever been aware how close it had come. Divorce had been possible for four years by then, but Rosie had signed up for life.
Undoubtedly, she loved Hubert; she just had to find a way to stay by his side.
Sister Camillus, a Mercy Nun, had introduced Rosie to Saint Rita the previous year. Though they never marry, religious sisters have a wealth of useful information to draw on. St Rita, as it turned out, was the patron saint of ... oh, of so many things, amongst them difficult marriages. The sainted woman had always wanted to be a nun, so Sister Camillus informed Rosie. Instead, Rita was married off to a rich brute of a man when she was only twelve years of age. Sister Camillus had noticeably paled when she’d told Rosie that. Doesn’t bear thinking about, Rosie agreed. Eighteen years after her marriage, Rita’s husband was murdered and she entered a nunnery. God works in mysterious ways, Rosie agreed.
Two months after Hubert’s retirement, Rosie began the Novena to St Rita on May the thirteenth and ended it on the twenty-first.
The unexpected conclusion she came to was that she had to extract herself from the house; that for her marriage to survive, Rosie had to too. Since Hubert’s retirement, Rosie found herself explaining why her day was enough.
It works for me, Hubert, she said when he asked why she did things in the order she did them. It takes me an hour to change my books, Hubert, because I have to read the back cover and sometimes the first chapter to find out if I have read it already. I change the sheets on Fridays so that I can have the weekend free when everyone else is. Stop Hubert. Stop lifting everything I put down. And, if you stand that close to me, Hubert, she said, holding a hot frying pan, I will scald you. Accidents happen.
She wasn’t going to tell him about the two hours every month it took to colour her hair. Her once blonde hair had darkened over the years to a soft brown. She had started colouring it when the first grey hair appeared and Hubert was none the wiser.
If she left the house more often, she explained less.
Some say that long-married couples begin to look like each other. Rosie thinks not in their case, but she has a habit of looking closely at people so that she can describe them for Hubert. He likes detail (a dropped eye, a small scar, a comb over, the shape of the jaw – especially if likened to a vegetable, the size of a person’s ears); it always comes in handy in a line up, he says. He never asks her the colour of a person’s eyes. If they are that striking, it will be the first thing you describe, he says.
The city then was Cork, Hubert’s fourth and final Station. For his last year, Hubert had complained bitterly that the young pups in charge were trying to sideline him. He wasn’t wrong but it was his superiors who wanted him gone – had for some time. Hubert was old school, not for turning. When he could no longer ignore that fact, Hubert made up his mind to retire. He had fretted every strand of hair off his head by that stage.
Rosie thought long and hard about staying in Cork. She thought long and hard about any change before raising it with Hubert. She’d had no say in where they lived up to then. If she wanted to now, she had to give Hubert every opportunity to think that he had made the decision. Though both of them were from County Monaghan, she had a yearning to move back to the east coast where she had been schooled, somewhere north of Dublin, she thought. A seaside – at least that was one thing Hubert would find no objection to – though he held out for two days. On that, as on other occasions, she thanked God that He had bestowed on her a sense of humour.
She and Hubert made His and Her lists. Hubert needed lists, or, more correctly, lived by lists. He scowled a lot, raised one bushy eyebrow in surprise when she insisted that he confine his list to essentials. ‘Since when have I done anything less,’ he protested.
His: must have friendly pubs; must not be consumed by satellite estates that run into each other; must not be overrun with young pups that terrorise their seniors.
Hers: must have a train station (Hubert is an impatient driver), a choir and a library.
They narrowed it down to three towns and Eamon – their youngest – helped his father make the decision she had already made.
Tommy is passing the time with the ambulance driver when the Hospice nurse pops her head out the front door. It’s noon and the sun is blistering. Tommy wipes his brow with the back of his hand.
‘We’re ready now, John,’ the nurse says.
The driver heaves himself off the side of the ambulance. ‘Right so.’ Then he turns to Tommy. ‘I know them well in the nursing home,’ he says. ‘She’ll be well looked after.’
Tommy nods but suddenly doesn’t want to be here. Carmel was right; he’s convinced himself that this will be his mother’s last trip out of the house. Did he think it would make a blind bit of difference to her if her eldest were there to watch? Even less likely now because they’ve given her something to make her sleepy.
‘I think this might upset Matthew, so I’ll take him for a short walk,’ he says. ‘Just make sure my father knows you’re leaving.’
The ambulance man raises a hand in acknowledgement. Tommy follows him over the doorstep and steers right into the living room. Matthew is where he left him, but Eamon has now joined him, wearing tartan trousers, more blonde streaks in his hair than a catwalk model. Eamon has overdone the aftershave; there’s not much difference between it and the furniture polish their mother likes. Matthew has counted down to five ducks and Eamon is doing a good job of feigning interest, even if he’s not supposed to be here. The big fellow is nowhere in sight.
Tommy has come to hate this room. Once his mother’s domain, it is sterile and ridiculously childproofed. Her collection of pottery and knick knacks are now coated in greasy skins of dust on top of the kitchen cabinets. His father has fixed childproof locks to every cabinet in the house, and has turned the CD racks against the wall. Yet the exorbitantly priced crystal lamp stand Carmel made him buy for his parents 50th wedding anniversary still met with an accident and apparently shattered beyond repair. So his father says.
‘The house is too crowded,’ Tommy says, looking at his son but making his point to Eamon. ‘Come on Matthew, we’ll walk to the shop and come back when it’s quieter. Give your Granddad a bit of space with Granny.’
Matthew needs no further prompt and slides down off the cushion. ‘Are you coming, Uncle Eamon?’
Eamon shakes his head, then catches Tommy’s eye. ‘No, I’ll stay in here out of the way.’
Tommy reaches for the baseball cap he had left on the hall table and pulls it over the thinning hair to the back of his head. As a rule, he manages to forget that he is accelerating to baldness, but Carmel has scared the life out of him talking about skin cancer.
He takes Matthew’s hand and walks away. Dementia is a great leveller, he thinks. Their mother has had Eamon’s back all his life. He is soft, different, she says. He is queer, that’s all there is to it; wired the wrong way. Eamon has a handy number? no children and two incomes to pay the bills. As for the laughing troubadour, Simon, making eyes at him, don’t get him started. That pair are as gay as Christmas. Gay pride is all very well, expect when it’s pushed into the faces of normal people. If he hears Simon laugh this day, he won’t be responsible for his actions.
He becomes aware that Matthew is skipping beside him to keep up. ‘Sorry, pal,’ he says, ‘I’m walking too fast.’
‘I like Uncle Eamon, Daddy. He doesn’t have any children, so he borrows me.’
‘Yes, and Grandad says that Granny only forgets things because she has so much in her head. He says that I will learn loads of songs at school. Will I?’
‘Grandad says you will learn lots of songs?’
‘No, Daddy, Uncle Eamon did.’
Tommy bends down and pulls his son into his arms. ‘You will indeed. Now, I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise to always be good to your Mammy, okay?’
‘Okay,’ Matthews says, ‘can I get something at the shop, Daddy? Can I?’
They are only through the door of the supermarket when they bump into the next-door neighbour, Ailish. Tommy stifles a groan; Ailish is one of the world’s most industrious busybodies. She has overdone it with the pencilled in eyebrows today; they look like charred boomerangs.
‘Hello, Tommy. Hello, Mattie,’ she says and rumbles the child’s hair. ‘Have they gone then?’
‘No, not yet, Ailish. I decided to take Matthew out of the way.’ Tommy emphasises Matthew’s full name. It’s his grandfather’s doing that nobody around here uses it.
‘She’ll get great care. I don’t think you boys know how much your father does for her at home.’
There she goes again; for a small woman, she has a lot to say. ‘Well, we have the daily help, and the cleaning lady, Ailish. If Dad and Mammy won’t come to live with us, there’s not much more I can do.’
She looks down at Mattie who is scuffing the floor with his runners. ‘Why don’t you pick a comic, Mattie? I’ll buy it for you.’
‘Can I, Daddy?’ he asks.
‘Yes, but stay by the papers until I come and get you.’
‘I didn’t want to say anything in front of the boy, and don’t let on that I told you, but I think your father’s planning to pay you a visit over the next week. He told Paddy he is taking a train trip.’
Tommy expels air as if it had been smothering him. ‘That’s crazy. I’m driving home today and could bring him for the week. But then ... is he not planning to visit Mammy?’
‘There I go shooting off my mouth again. Paddy says I should carry sellotape around with me. It’s probably only a night or two and your Mammy will be fine. The point of respite is to give the carer a break, Tommy.’
Tommy mouth tightens and he fakes a smile. ‘I’m well aware of that, thanks, Ailish. Carmel and I have encouraged him to take up the offer many times.’
‘I know a woman whose husband is invalided and she gets him into a nursing home for two weeks every year and has herself a little holiday. She goes off on one of those escorted holidays to foreign places. The places, she’s seen, I can only dream about. New York, Portugal, Venice, all over. Now you wouldn’t think that anyone would begrudge her that, but ?’
‘Matthew,’ Tommy calls his son. ‘Bring the comic here and Ailish will get it for you.’
Ailish fishes in her pocket for change and reaches for Matthew’ hand. She presses several coins into his palm. ‘That should be enough,’ she says and turns to Tommy. ‘And remember, not a word to your father. He might not get off at all, and if he doesn’t, we’ll keep an eye on him.’
Tommy holds his son’s hand as they walk away. It’s only a few minutes back to the house, but he dawdles all the same. ‘Let’s go down on the sand for a few minutes, Matthew.’
Soon as they cross the road, Matthew hands him the comic and sprints through the swaying grass. He’s pulling off his shoes and socks before Tommy reaches him. He didn't mean for the boy to go in for a paddle, but now he’s intent on it, he won’t stop him.
The tide is on its way in. Tommy takes his jacket off and sits down on a rock. He shifts into a more comfortable position and drapes the jacket over his knees. Mattie calls back to him and starts to wade into the water. ‘Roll up your trousers over your knees and keep them dry,’ Tommy warns. He hears Carmel’s instructions to let Mattie wear shorts. No, that would have made the day trip like any other summer visit, and this is not a summer visit. Did nobody see how momentous this is but him? The beginning of the end, making it easier the next time, extending it to weeks until she left home for good, moving out of his life, becoming a person who would forgot who he was.
His father was reared on a farm, spent his career in country towns yet, for some reason, he retired to live by the seaside. Said he’d always wanted to hear the sea again after his stint in Sligo. Tommy is not convinced. As he sees it, his mother worked her way to the East coast to be beside Eamon. Probably thought he would need looking after.
What can his father be thinking now? If he came home to Galway with him and Mattie, he wouldn’t have to tackle trains – at least two to get him to Galway. He needs a stick to get around. How will he manage a bag? Now, not only has he his father’s obstinacy to worry about, but Tommy’s not at all warm to the idea that his mother is being abandoned in the Home for a week. He’ll have to put Eamon on standby to visit her. If he’d known what his father was planning, he’d have taken a few days off himself.
He looks out over Mattie’s golden head and it occurs to him that there is little difference between the blue wash of the sky and sea that’s meeting it. There’s even a fringe of white clouds up there that mirror the crests of white caps spilling in over the sand. He smiles to himself. No wonder people once thought that you’d fall off the side of the earth if you sailed out too far. Would that he had so little to worry about.
‘Time to go, Matthew,’ he calls.
Course they have no towel and Matthew's feet are caked in sand. Tommy will have to wash them when they get back to the house otherwise his car will be destroyed. He never brings it to seaside for that reason. Tommy brushes off as much sand as he can. ‘Hop up for a piggy back, Matthew.’
Simon is sitting on the front garden wall as they approach the house. There is no sign of the ambulance.
‘Everything go okay?’ Tommy asks.
The big softie’s cheeks are streaked. ‘Yes, all well. Rosie – your mum – was sleeping peacefully when they wheeled her out in the chair. Thankfully, it wasn’t a stretcher; that would have upset Mr MacElhinney greatly. Upset all of us, to be truthful. Anyway, sorry if we got in the way. We thought the coast would be clear, and we would look in on your Dad, take him for a pint or something.’
Tommy hadn’t even thought of that. ‘I asked him earlier. He’s not bothered. In fact, he might come down to us in Galway for a few days.’
Simon smiles. It’s the loud, flare version, grabbing attention and daring you to miss it. ‘That would be great. Give him a proper break. You know it’s not easy …’
A pause while Tommy gathers himself. ‘I know. I know. Anyway, nothing is planned, so let’s see how it pans out. If he does travel down, Eamon can keep an eye on Mammy in the nursing home.’
‘We would be happy to, Tommy.’
I never asked you, Tommy mutters to himself as he walks indoors.