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The Break By Marian Keyes

A new novel from Marian Keyes is always an event, for Keyes has a bottle-it-and-you-need-never-work-again talent for making the serious seem feather-light. The Break is no exception. Seemingly the story of devoted couple Hugh and Amy, whose long relationship is the envy of their friends – until, out of the blue, Hugh announces he wants a marriage break and heads off, with barely suppressed excitement, on a “gap six months”. Whether or not their relationship can survive is the driving plot of the novel, but it is underpinned by everything, from YouTube culture to having a parent with Alzheimer's, blended families to the inequities of the Irish abortion law; serious issues snuck in just as you're laughing so hard you snort your coffee. If you're a fan, you'll love it. If you haven't read a Marian Keyes before – why???! – start right here. SB

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THE BREAK

Marian Keyes

£20, Michael Joseph

BUY NOW

A new novel from Marian Keyes is always an event, for Keyes has a bottle-it-and-you-need-never-work-again talent for making the serious seem feather-light. The Break is no exception. Seemingly the story of devoted couple Hugh and Amy, whose long relationship is the envy of their friends – until, out of the blue, Hugh announces he wants a marriage break and heads off, with barely suppressed excitement, on a “gap six months”. Whether or not their relationship can survive is the driving plot of the novel, but it is underpinned by everything, from YouTube culture to having a parent with Alzheimer's, blended families to the inequities of the Irish abortion law; serious issues snuck in just as you're laughing so hard you snort your coffee. If you're a fan, you'll love it. If you haven't read a Marian Keyes before – why???! – start right here. SB

Chapter:

One

Friday, 9 September

‘Myself and Hugh,’ I say. ‘We’re taking a break.’

‘A city-with-fancy-food sort of a break?’ Maura narrows her eyes. ‘Or a Rihanna sort of a break?’

‘Well?’ She presses her case. ‘Is it the city-with-fancy-food break?’

‘No, it’s –’

‘The Rihanna kind? You’ve got to be joking me, because Rihanna is – what? – twenty-two and you’re –’

‘Not twenty-two.’ It’s imperative to shut her down before she utters my age. I don’t know how I got to be forty-four. Clearly I’d my eye off the ball but, a bit late to the party, I’m trying to airbrush away all references to it. It’s not just the fear-of-dying and, worse, the fear-of-becoming-jowly, it’s because I work in PR, a dynamic, youthful sector, which does not value the ‘less-young’ among us. I’ve bills to pay, I’m simply being practical here.

So I avoid any stating of my age, like, ever, in the hope that if no one says it, no one will know about it and I can stay age-free until the end of time. (My one regret is that I didn’t adopt this attitude when I was twenty-seven, but I knew nothing when I was twenty-seven.)

‘I’m your sister,’ Maura says. ‘I’m seven years older than you, so if I’m fifty-one –’

‘Of course,’ I say very, very quickly, talking over her, to shut her up. ‘Of course, of course, of course.’ Maura has never worried about getting old. For as long as I can remember she’s been ancient, more like Pop’s twin sister than his eldest child.

‘So it’s a “break” where Hugh can go off – where?’

‘South East Asia.’

‘Seriously? And then . . . what?’

‘He’ll come back.’

‘What if he doesn’t?’

It was the worst idea ever to admit my news to Maura, but she has a knack for getting the truth out of people. (We call her the Waterboarder.) She can always smell a story. She’s known something’s been up with me for the past five days – I thought I’d be okay if I kept ducking her calls but clearly I have a strong delusional streak because it was only a matter of time before she showed up at my work and refused to leave until she knew everything.

‘Look, nothing is definite,’ I try. ‘He might not go.’ Because he might not.

‘You can’t let him,’ she announces. ‘Just tell him he can’t and let that be an end to it.’

If only it was that simple. She hadn’t read Hugh’s letter so she didn’t know the torment he was in. Letting him leave was my best chance of saving my marriage. Probably.

‘Is it to do with his dad dying?’

I nod. Hugh’s dad died eleven months ago, and Hugh had shut down. ‘I thought that if enough time passed he’d be okay.’

‘But he isn’t. He’s the opposite of okay.’ She’s getting worked up. ‘This effing family. When will the drama stop? It’s like playing Whac-A-Mole.’ Maura’s rages are familiar and they no longer have the power to utterly terrify me. ‘No sooner is one of you toeing the line than another of you blows your life up. Why are you all such disasters?’ She means me and my siblings and, actually, we aren’t. Well, no more than any other family, which is to say, quite a lot, but so is everyone else’s, so we’re fairly normal, really.

‘It must be my fault,’ she declares. ‘Was I a bad role model?’

‘Yes.’

In actual fact she was the least bad role model that ever lived, but she’s upset me. Surely, all things considered, I’m deserving of sympathy.

‘You’re so cruel!’ she says. ‘You try being a little girl’ (she means herself) ‘whose mum is in hospital for months on end with tuberculosis at a time when tuberculosis wasn’t even a thing, when it was years out of date. A little girl who has four younger brothers and sisters, who won’t stop crying, and a big, cold house, which is falling to bits, and a dad who can’t cope. Yes, I have an over-developed sense of responsibility but . . .’

I know the speech and could do a word-perfect recitation, but closing her down when she’s in full flow is next to impossible. (My siblings and I like to joke that her husband TPB – The Poor Bastard – developed spontaneous mutism shortly after their wedding and that no one has heard him speak for the past twenty-one years. We insist that the last words he’d ever been heard saying – in tones of great doubt – were ‘I do . . . ?’)

‘What’s going on?’ I ask, baffled by her antipathy. ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’

‘Yet,’ she says. ‘Yet!’

‘What are you saying?’

She seems surprised. ‘If your husband is “on a break” from your marriage’ – she does the quotation marks with her fingers – ‘then aren’t you’ – more quotation marks – ‘ “on a break” too?’

It takes a few moments for her words to sink in. Then, to my great surprise, something stirs in me, something hopeful that, after the last five horrible days, feels like the sweetest relief. In a small recess of my soul a tiny pilot light sparks into life.

Slowly, I say, ‘Seeing as you put it like that, well, I suppose I am.’

***

Now that she’s got what she came for, Maura gathers up her stuff, a sturdy brown briefcase and a waterproof jacket.

‘Please, Maura,’ I say fiercely. ‘You are not to tell the others.’

‘But they’re your family!’ How has she managed to make this sound like a curse? ‘And Hugh hasn’t been coming for the Friday dinners for ages. They know something’s wrong.’

‘I’m serious, Maura. The girls don’t know yet and they can’t find out from Chinese whispers.’ I pause. Are we allowed to say ‘Chinese whispers’, these days? Best not to take chances. ‘They can’t find out from stray gossip.’ Not as colourful, but it would have to do.

‘Have you not even told Derry?’ Maura sounds surprised.

Derry is our other sister and, at just fifteen months older than me, we’re close.

‘Look, it may not actually happen. He mightn’t go.’

For the first time, compassion appears on her face. ‘You’re in denial.’

‘I’m in something,’ I admit. ‘Shock, I think.’ But there’s also shame, fear, sorrow, guilt and, yes, denial, in the mix, everything tangled together in one horrible snarl-up.

‘Are you still okay to do the dinner tonight?’

‘Yep.’ Friday dinner at Mum and Pop’s house is a tradition that has endured for at least a decade. Mum isn’t hardy enough to cater every week for the numbers who turn up – my siblings, their children, their partners and their ex-partners (oh, yes, very modern, we are) – so the catering rotates week by week. ‘Any idea how many are coming tonight?’ I ask.

There is such a clatter of O’Connells that it’s impossible to ever establish an exact number for catering purposes. Every Friday texts zip to and fro, cancelling and confirming, adding and subtracting, and the one number you can be sure it won’t be is the number you think it is. But whatever the headcount, it’s best to cater for a multitude. God forbid that they run out of food on your watch: you’ll never be let forget it.

‘Me,’ Maura says, listing on her fingers. ‘You. Not Hugh, obviously.’

I flinch.

A gentle knock on the door interrupts us. Thamy’s head appears. ‘Incoming in five,’ she says.

‘You’ve to go,’ I say to Maura. ‘I’ve a meeting.’

‘On a Friday afternoon?’ Maura’s antennae are quivering. ‘Who has a meeting on a Friday afternoon? Someone’s in trouble, right?’

‘Please,’ I say. ‘Out.’

Hatch, the tiny agency that I’m one-third of, does all kinds of PR, including Image Management. We rehabilitate politicians, sports-people, actors – public figures of one sort or another who’ve been publicly shamed. It used to be all about sex scandals but, these days, the opportunities to disgrace yourself have expanded – accusations of racism, that’s a big one – which will, quite rightly, lose you your job. Sexism, ageism and size-ism are all dicey, as is bullying, stealing small objects, such as Putin’s pen, or parking in a disabled spot when you’re not disabled.

Of course, the methods of public shaming have also changed: back in the day, badzers lived in terror of the front page of a Sunday tabloid. But because in today’s world everything is caught on phones, the fear is of going viral.

‘Any freebies?’ Maura asks, as Thamy and I hustle her through the main office and towards the exit.

‘Give her some incontinence pants,’ I tell Thamy. EverDry is one of our biggest clients and, grim as it sounds, incontinence is a huge growth area.

‘Ah, here!’ Maura says. ‘I’m far from incontinent. Is there no chocolate? Oh, hi, Alastair . . .’

Alastair has just got in from London, so he’s looking particularly impressive in his high-end suit and crisp white shirt. He fixes Maura with his silvery eyes, then slowly unleashes The Smile. He is pathetic. ‘Hi, Maura,’ he says, his voice low and intimate.

‘Hi,’ she squeaks, a flush roaring up from her neck.

‘Chocolate?’ Alastair says. ‘Hold on . . .’

Hatch represent an artisanal chocolate-maker, which is a torment because samples are sent to the office and sometimes it’s just too exhausting to resist them.

Alastair grabs a box of chocolates from the cupboard, then a couple of body scrubs made from turf (I know). As a small gesture of defiance, I add a pack of incontinence pants to the pile.

Thamy shepherds my sister towards the stairs so she won’t bump into Mrs EverDry coming up in the lift. Thamy is a godsend – originally from Brazil, she’s our Reception, Invoicing and Goods Inward departments, all in one charming package. She can persuade the most reluctant of debtors to cough up, is never huffy about making coffee and, unlike all of her predecessors, isn’t a half-wit. Far from it. (I’m worried now about having used the word ‘half-wit’ – people have been Twitter-shamed for less. Rehabilitating disgraced people makes you very cognizant of these things.)

Alastair and I make our way to the small conference room, the room in which Maura has just extracted my sad secret from me. (The Hatch premises are tiny because tiny is all we can afford. Mind you, I work from London two days a week, where we can’t afford any office space.)

There’s no time to brush my hair so I ask Alastair, ‘Do I look okay?’

When people hear I work in public relations, they can barely hide their surprise. Women PRs are usually tall, bone-thin, blonde and aloof; they wear tight white skirt suits that hug their cellulite-free flanks; their smiles are icy and their auras are positively glacial. Hamstrung as I am with shortness and a tendency to roundness, which I need to watch like a hawk, I certainly don’t look the part. It’s just as well I’m good at my job.

‘Dishevelled can be charming.’ Alastair says. ‘Makes you seem likeable. But . . .’ he begins to straighten my collar ‘. . . maybe today a little too messy?’

I move his hand away. He’s far too free and easy when it comes to touching women. Nevertheless my dress is crumpled and my internal unravelling can’t start manifesting in my appearance. My mind races through possible ways to upgrade my look. Ironing my work clothes: that would be a good, solid start.

With a stab of wild hope, I wonder about doing something magical with my hair. Maybe cut six inches off it? But that would be tantamount to self-harm – my hair is nothing but good to me. A little needy, perhaps, and, according to magazine articles, far too long for a woman in her forties, but it’s the most glamorous thing I possess.

How about the colour? Is it finally time to move on from dark brown and embrace a more age-appropriate lighter hue?

My hairdresser had given me the well-worn lecture about how skin tones fade as a woman ages. ‘Keep dyeing your hair this dark,’ he’d said, ‘and you’ll look like you’ve been embalmed.’

‘I know what “they” say,’ I’d said, ‘I do, Lovatt. But in this instance “they” are wrong. I’m an exception. Or a freak, if you prefer.’

He didn’t prefer. His mouth tightened mutinously and he dried my roots matron-bouffy as punishment.

‘Doing anything nice for the weekend?’ Alastair asks.

I think about Hugh’s plans to run away. About the need to tell the girls. About this being the end of my life as I know it. I shrug. ‘Nothing much. You?’

‘A course.’ He looks a little abashed.

‘Another of your Learn the Secret to Happiness in Forty-eight Hours things? Alastair,’ I say helplessly, ‘you’re looking for something that doesn’t exist.’

He seems to devote a weekend a month to Healing the Wounds of Childhood, or Emptiness in the Age of Plenty, or similar, but so far none of them has worked.

‘Here’s the secret to happiness,’ I say. ‘Drink as heavily as you can get away with. Buy stuff. And, if all else fails, spend three days in bed eating doughnuts. How do you think the rest of us manage?’

Before Alastair can defend himself, Tim, the third partner in Hatch, comes in.

All three of us – Tim, Alastair and I – used to work together in a big Irish PR agency, but about five years ago we got laid off. As part of his relentless quest, Alastair went to an ashram in India, which he was asked to leave because he wouldn’t stop shagging yoga-bunny acolytes. I spent a few grim years in the freelancing wilderness, and Tim went back to college and qualified as an accountant. This tells you all you need to know about the three different energies that Alastair, Tim and I bring to the table.

We set up our little agency about two and a half years ago and we lurch from month to month, wondering if we’ll still be operational in thirty days’ time. It’s an anxious way to live. So anxious that I have chronic gastritis and one of my main food groups is Zantac. My (twelve-year-old) GP told me to excise all stress and I’d nodded obediently but in my head I was saying, all sarcastic-like, ‘You think?’ Then she told me to lose a couple of pounds and I wanted to weep: that weight was a by-product of giving up cigarettes. It made me consider just doing all the bad stuff and dying an early death but at least I’d have enjoyed my life.

And here comes Mrs EverDry, stout and scary in her tailored dress, and we’re all on our feet, warmly welcoming her. Maura had it wrong when she deduced that a Friday-afternoon meeting indicated a crisis: it’s when Mrs EverDry likes to receive her monthly progress report. She lives in some rural opposite-of-idyll and it suits her to come to Dublin on a weekend ‘for the shops’.

‘You.’ She points at me.

Shite. What have I done? Or not done?

‘I hear you’re Neeve Aldin’s mother,’ she says. ‘Neeve Aldin of Bitch, Please fame?’

‘Oh? Ah. Yes!’

‘I watch her make-up vlogs with my fourteen-year-old. She’s gas craic, makes us both laugh.’

‘Well . . . ah . . . great.’

‘Mind you, I’m nearly in the poorhouse from having to buy the stuff she pushes. You wouldn’t ask her to showcase some cheaper brands?’

‘I can try!’ There’s not an earthly that Neeve would listen to me.

‘How come she has a different surname to you?’

‘She’s from my first marriage. Goes by her dad’s name.’

‘That’s that mystery cleared up. Let’s get started.’

Off we go and Mrs EverDry is pleased with some of our progress – we got a mention on Coronation Street. ‘But I’ve decided that we need an ambassador,’ she says.

Her words fall into stunned silence. ‘The public face of the brand.’

We know what an ambassador is, we just don’t know how to tell her she’s totally delusional.

‘Interesting . . .’ I’m playing for time.

‘Don’t you “interesting” me,’ she says.

Alastair’s got to be the one to neutralize this – she loves him. ‘Mrs Mullen,’ he says gently. ‘It won’t be easy to find someone willing to publicly admit to incontinence.’

‘We just need one person,’ she says. ‘Then everyone will be at it.’

And she’s right. It’s not so long since having cancer was a secret, or when no one would own up to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

‘Everyone’s incontinent!’ Mrs EverDry declares. She looks at Alastair, and her tone softens. ‘Well, maybe not you. You’re perfect.’

‘I have more things wrong with me than you could ever imagine.’ Alastair thinks he’s being charming but I agree with him.

Mrs EverDry studies Tim. ‘I’d say you aren’t incontinent either.’

‘I’m too young,’ Tim says.

‘And too uptight.’

We all snort with unexpected laughter. Mrs EverDry is our most important client, but you couldn’t help liking her.

Now she turns her gaze on me. ‘I couldn’t claim incontinence,’ I say apologetically, ‘but my bladder certainly isn’t what it was.’

‘Maybe not everyone’s incontinent yet,’ Mrs EverDry concedes. ‘But soon they will be. Because we’re all living too long.’

Which is exactly the point that Hugh had been trying to make when he broke his terrible news to me. The tiny pilot light of hope that Maura’s visit had lit is abruptly extinguished and, once again, I’m sad and scared.

Two

I’d been well aware that Hugh was suffering – his dad had died, it was only to be expected, and as his mum had been dead for eight years he was now officially an orphan.

None of my family of origin had died yet, but I’d absorbed enough from our Dr Phil culture to know that bereavement affects everyone differently and all I could do for Hugh was be there for him. But although I urged him to cry, he didn’t shed a tear. And, though permission was tacitly granted for a spell of excessive drinking, he stuck to his usual few bottles of ludicrously named craft beer. I even offered to accompany him snowboarding, in spite of being worried about the state of me in the padded clothing, but he had no interest.

I tried to keep his life as stress-free as possible – which mostly involved defusing tension between him and Neeve – and I’d often ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’

But talking was the last thing he wanted to do.

Not much riding either, since we’re on the subject. And maybe we weren’t, but it has to be said. In fact, in the aftermath of his dad’s death, very little of his time was spent in bed. He stayed up late, binge-watching crime things, and was always awake before me in the mornings.

Then one Thursday, maybe four or five months after the funeral, I’d bumped awake around six a.m. Hugh wasn’t in bed with me and his spot was cold. Although his car was still outside, he was nowhere in the house. Extremely uneasy, I rang him, and when he didn’t pick up, my imagination went to the darkest places. We hear so much about men and suicide, how it happens – seemingly – without warning.

Hugh didn’t do anguish. As a rule, he was very steady and, paradoxically, it was this very steadiness that had me convinced he was in the danger zone – too much of a stoic, bottling stuff up. In a panic, I threw on some clothes and drove around Dundrum, searching for him in the March dawn.

Marley Park seemed like the obvious choice – all those trees – but no one was there so I circled the residential streets in our neighbourhood for probably an hour, a very long one, until my phone rang. It was him. I’d worked myself up into such a state that I could hardly believe his voice. ‘Where are you?’ he asked.

‘Where are you?’

‘At home.’

‘Stay there.’

He claimed he’d gone for a walk. I believed him, but it was deeply unsettling. Running, even middle-of-the-night running, is fairly normal, right? Walking, though, seemed a bit weird.

‘I was worried about you,’ I said. ‘I thought you might have –’

‘No. I’d never do that.’

‘But I don’t know what’s going on with you.’

‘Yeah.’ He’d sighed. ‘I don’t know what’s going on with me either.’

‘Sweetie,’ I’d said. ‘I think it’s time you saw someone about anti-depressants.’

After a long silence he’d said, ‘Okay.’

Then I was really freaked out. Hugh would do anything to avoid going to the doctor – if his leg fell off he’d dismiss it as a mere flesh wound even as he hopped in place to stop himself toppling over.

But he went and he got a prescription for Seroxat. (Which I knew were ‘entry-level’ SSRIs – as a middle-class, middle-aged woman, my life was filled with people who had either been on anti-depressants or knew someone who had.)

Even though he took the tablets, Hugh continued to disappear regularly in the middle of the night, and when I told my sister Derry, she said, ‘You don’t think he’s, you know, dropping in on some unaccompanied lady?’

Of course the thought had crossed my mind, but instinct told me that whatever internal tussle was taking place in Hugh, it wasn’t about extra-curricular riding.

So I sat him down for another chat and suggested he see a grief counsellor.

‘What would that achieve?’ he asked, his eyes dead.

That stumped me. I knew nothing about the ins and outs of counselling sessions. But ... ‘Lots of people who’ve been bereaved find them helpful.’

‘How much would it cost?’

‘I could find out.’

‘How many times would I have to go?’

‘I think it varies.’

‘You think it might help me?’

‘Well, it helps other people. Why should you be any different?’

‘Okay.’ He exhaled heavily. ‘Maybe I’d better.’ Then, ‘I can’t go on like this.’

That terrified me. ‘Sweetie, what do you mean?’

‘Just . . . I can’t go on like this.’

‘Like what?’

‘Everything seems pointless.’

‘Tell me. Please.’

He shook his head. ‘Nothing to tell. Just everything seems pointless.’

I knew better than to say that things weren’t pointless. But to witness his pain and be unable to reach him was maddeningly frustrating. We, who’d been so, so close, were light years from each other. Alastair was my go-to person for all matters related to emotional growth. He gave me the name of a psychotherapist who specialized in bereavement. ‘She’s spendy,’ he warned me.

But I didn’t care. Any money was worth it if it coaxed Hugh from his silent, flat-eyed misery.

After the first session I asked Hugh, ‘How did it go?’

His face expressionless, he said, ‘I don’t know.’

‘Will you go again?’

‘Yeah. Next week. She says I have to commit to ten weeks.’

‘Okay. Good. Great, Hugh. Well done.’

He stared at me, as if he didn’t know who I was.

So, for several Thursdays in a row, Hugh went to the counsellor. I tried not to quiz him about it, but always managed a breezy, ‘How’d it go?’

Usually he shrugged and made noncommittal noises, but towards the end of the course, he said, his tone without inflection, ‘I don’t think it’s working.’

My spirits plummeted, but I forced cheer into my voice and said, ‘Give it time.’

What kept me positive was the hope that once we’d got past the first anniversary of his father’s death things might ease up for him.

Then the most horrific thing happened: Hugh’s friend died, a man he’d known since he was five years old. The nature of the death was particularly dreadful: Gavin had been stung by a wasp and gone into anaphylactic shock. No one had known he was allergic to wasp stings – the entire thing was a bolt from the blue.

I was sorry for Gavin’s wife, for his children, for his parents and sibling – but, to my shame, I was more concerned about Hugh. This was bound to impact on him profoundly. Any healing he might have done in the months since his dad had died would surely be negated.

And so it proved. Instantly Hugh abandoned his counselling sessions and left the room whenever I brought up the subject. He began skipping work and spent hour upon hour watching Netflix. He stopped seeing his friends, opted out of all family events and barely spoke.

In July, he, the girls and I went on holiday to Sardinia, me desperate with hope that the sunshine might effect some healing. But all he did was sit in silence and watch the sea with a six-mile stare, while the rest of us tiptoed anxiously around him.

Once we were back home, I realized, with no little despair, that all I could do was wait things out, and that it was likely to be a very long wait.

However, about three weeks ago, we were invited to a drinks thing – someone’s birthday – and, to my surprise, he agreed to come. My heart leapt with hope and the ever-present knot in my stomach unwound slightly.

But soon after we got there, my arch-frenemy Genevieve Payne descended on us.

‘Hugh! Hello, stranger.’ She began stroking his arm. ‘The eyes on this man!’ she said. ‘So blue! So sexy! You know, Amy, if Hugh was my husband, I’d never let him out of bed.’

This was her normal lark with him. My mouth went, ‘Ha-ha- ha,’ while my eyes went, ‘Please can I bury an axe in your head?’

In the past, Hugh had always received her attentions in a strong and silent fashion – not shrugging her off but not leading her on either. You know, polite. He knew how her slinky confidence intimidated me.

But this time he turned and smiled at her – I hadn’t seen him smile in the last year. Genevieve reddened, she actually looked embarrassed, and something inside me felt very cold and scared.

Driving home I said, ‘You can have an a air with anyone in the whole world except for Genevieve Payne.’

Whenever I said that – and I said it every time I saw her – Hugh would reply, ‘Babe, I won’t have an affair with anyone ever.’ But this time he said, ‘Okay.’ No ‘babe’. And just ‘Okay.’

I opened my mouth, then thought, No, let it go.

Fast-forward to last Saturday evening, when we were at home, alone. Hugh was at the kitchen table, tapping away on his iPad for hours. A quick look over his shoulder established that he was doing something with figures. I thought nothing of it but on a return visit, ages later, he was still at it.

‘What are you doing?’

He hesitated and, whatever way he did it, a thin thread of dread unfurled in my gut. ‘Our finances.’

I stared at him for a long, silent beat. This didn’t make sense. Only two months earlier, our ropy finances had enjoyed a major facelift because his dad’s house had finally sold. The proceeds were divvied up between Hugh and his three brothers, and after we’d ring-fenced Sofie and Kiara’s college fees, got braces for Kiara’s wonky teeth, repaired our glitchy house-alarm system, fixed the leak in Neeve’s bedroom, gone on the holiday to Sardinia and paid off our credit cards, what remained might have bought half a car. (A mid-range car, I don’t mean a fancy one.)

As we’d never known financial equilibrium, the unprecedented situation of not worrying if our card would be declined with every transaction we made was joyous.

But to have an actual fund of actual cash to play with had nearly toppled me over the edge. I began uttering the phrase ‘nest egg’, even though heretofore it was the most irritatingly smug thing I’d ever heard.

I had great plans for the ‘nest egg’ and assembled a lengthy wish list – replacing our unpredictable boiler, getting a much-needed new couch, paying off a tiny amount of our mortgage, or even – this was a secret, desperate hope – sending Hugh and me on a modest mini-break, just the two of us, in the hope that somehow we’d reconnect.

Nothing explained the lengthy calculations Hugh had been doing all evening and I could have pressed the issue but something – fear? – advised me to say nothing.

The very next night, after the girls had gone to bed, he said to me, ‘We need to talk.’

That is a sentence no one ever wants to hear. But, as Hugh had barely addressed a syllable to me in the previous year, I was definitely . . . interested, I suppose.

He handed me a glass of wine. ‘Can we sit at the kitchen table?’

A talk where I had to be softened up with alcohol? A talk where we’d be facing each other?

I took a big swig of wine, went to the kitchen, sat at the table and took another swig of wine. ‘Off you go.’

Hugh stared downwards, as if the secrets of the universe were written in the limed oak. ‘I love you.’ He flicked a glance at me and his eyes burnt with sincerity. Then he resumed his study of the table. ‘I want to stay married to you.’

Good words, yes, nice words, the right words. However, any fool could see that a great big BUT was hanging over us like a block of concrete.

‘But?’ I prompted.

His hand clenched his beer bottle and it was a moment before he spoke. ‘I’d like a break.’

Bad. This was bad, bad, bad.

‘Could you look at me?’ If I could see him, it might be possible to stop this.

‘Sorry.’ He sat up straight, and the sight of his face, full-on, was kind of a surprise, because when you’ve been with someone a long time, you rarely bother to study them properly. He looked exhausted.

‘I’m not expressing myself well.’ He sounded miserable. ‘I’ve written it down in a letter. Can I show it to you?’ He slid his iPad across the table.

My angel,

I love you. I will always love you. I want us to be together always. But I want something else. I need more.
I guess it’s because of Dad, then Gavin. All I can think about is the complete futility of life; we get one go, it’s very short, and then we die. I feel I haven’t done enough with my life. Enough for me. I love Neeve, Sofie and Kiara with everything I’ve got but I feel I’ve spent a lot of time putting them ahead of me. I want some time where I put me first.

And as I write this, it sounds so selfish, and I’m aware of all the other people who have terrible lives they can’t escape. I know you also feel like your time is constantly colonized and that you’re always last on the list. But I feel like I’m being buried alive and that I’ll burst if I don’t change something. This is destroying me and I can’t keep going.

I know it will hurt you and I hate myself for that, but I can’t stop my thoughts. I want to stay for you but I need to go for me. It’s like being torn in two in a trap.

Yes, it’s a mid-life crisis, but I don’t want a sports car, I just want some freedom. I really think this will be the best for us in the long run.

I want us to grow old together. I want us to be together till the end.

It’s not simply a sex thing. I know you’ll worry that it is, but that’s not the reason.

This isn’t a cowardly way of saying I want us to split up. I love you, I love our life together, I will always love you, and after six months I promise to come back.

Hugh

Three

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.

Just as well I was sitting down because I was dizzy. He looked at me, his eyes searching, and I stared back, like he was a stranger.

‘Amy?’

‘I . . . God, I don’t know what to . . .’

‘It’s big, I know,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, Amy. I’m so sorry. I hate doing this to you. I don’t want to feel this way. I’ve tried to stop it but it keeps coming back.’

I scanned the words again and they were even more devastating second time round – torn in two in a trap . . . like I’m being buried alive . . . six months . . . freedom . . .

Having his internal upheaval laid bare was horrifying – he was in a terrible state. And him wanting six months of freedom wasn’t a whim: it was a conclusion he’d reached after painful soul-searching.

He mustn’t go – that was clear – but I needed the details so I could manage them.

‘Where were you thinking of doing this?’ My voice was choked.

‘South East Asia, Thailand, Vietnam, those places. Back-packing. I want to learn to scuba-dive.’

The level of detail triggered another wave of dizziness. All that time he’d been going around like a silent ghost, I’d been solicitously enquiring if he’d like to talk, and he’d been plotting his escape.

And back-packing? He was forty-six, not nineteen.

Still. Lots of people were giving up their middle-aged, middle-class lives to relive their teenage years. Silver something-or-others. Not that Hugh was a silver anything: his beard and shaggy hair were dark brown, not a hint of grey, he was tall and fit and, when he wasn’t in the throes of anguish, he looked younger than his age. He could be a hit on the beach-party-under-a-full-moon circuit.

‘But what about your job?’

‘I’ve been talking to Carl.’ Carl is his brother and they co-own a sound studio where Hugh is an engineer. ‘He says he’ll cover with freelancers.’

‘You’ve told Carl?’ Before he’d told me. I took another swig of wine. ‘So you wouldn’t be earning any money for six months?’

What about the mortgage, all the different insurances, the daily drain from the girls, all the small expenses that add up to so much? Then he looked properly shamefaced. ‘I’m so sorry, babe, but the cash left over from Dad’s house will cover it.’

I didn’t think I could feel any more shocked. No more nest egg. ‘When were you thinking of going?’ Did I have weeks or months to change his mind?

‘Maybe in a week or ten days.’

Jesus Christ. ‘Have . . . you haven’t bought a ticket?’

‘I’ve been looking at flights.’

‘Oh, God, Hugh . . .’

‘I’m sorry.’ Shockingly, his face crumpled and he began to cry, the first tears I’d seen him shed since his dad’s death.

‘Sweetheart . . .’ I scooted round and took him in my arms.

‘When I saw Dad lying in that wooden box . . .’ he shuddered

into my shoulder ‘. . . all the things he’d wanted to do and now he never would, it just hit me . . .’

I had to wait until he’d cried out his sorrow before my next question. Finally, he swiped the sleeve of his sweatshirt across his wet eyes. ‘Sorry,’ he mumbled.

‘Hugh?’ I was breathless with anxiety. ‘When you say it’s not simply a sex thing? You mean that it is a sex thing?’

I was still hoping I might have misunderstood even though I knew, right in the marrow of my bones, that I hadn’t.

We exchanged a look and it was as if our entire relationship flashed between us: the promises, the trust, the enmeshed emotions, the rock-solid unity – and now some sort of appalling unravelling where he peeled away on a path of his own.

He shook his head. ‘That’s not what this is about.’

‘But it’s not out of the question?’

He studied his hands for a long time. ‘Amy, I love you. I’ll come back to you. But if it happens . . . then yes.’

Fuuuuuuuck . . .

He grabbed his beer, his knuckles white. ‘For the six months, it’d be like . . .’ He paused, then blurted, ‘Like we wouldn’t be married.’

I was plunged into the horrors. Because this had happened to me before – being left by a husband – and it was the worst thing I had ever gone through. It had been so horrible that, to insure myself against a repeat episode, I’d avoided anything serious with any man for half a decade. And when, five years after Richie had legged it, something lovely sparked between me and Hugh, it had scared the daylights out of me.

It was several months before I could talk myself into giving him a chance, and then only because I’d spent the intervening period of chaste denial observing and checking him, the way a horse-buyer inspects a potential purchase, lifting its hoofs and examining its teeth. And the thing I’d been looking for was staying power. I did NOT want a player. I did not want a man who’d change his mind. I did NOT want a man who might leave me. Because it couldn’t happen again.

And yet, here it was – happening again.

As if he knew what I was thinking, he said, ‘It’s only for six months, Amy. Not for ever.’

‘Yes, but –’

‘I’ll come back. I’ll definitely come back.’

He couldn’t know that. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

But he could have done this the way men usually do it – sneakily, dishonestly, two-mobiles-y. Telling lies that he had to go to some tedious conference when he was actually off to San Sebastián for a weekend of gastro-riding.

At least he was being honest. Did that make it any better? I didn’t know.

I reached for my wine and tipped it into me, then said, ‘Can you get me a vodka?’

‘Sure.’ He jumped up, guilt and relief adding extra vigour.

This hurt too much. I needed to get drunk.

***

Sometime in the ominous pre-dawn I came to. I was in bed, with no memory of getting there. Something catastrophic had happened – I had the feelings before I had the facts. Then I remembered: Hugh wanted to go away for six months of conscious uncoupling.

Half a year. It was a long time. People can change a lot in six months – especially if they’re meeting all kinds of new people. A sudden image of Hugh fucking some taut-bodied girl with pretty tattoos and surfy hair made me feel I was awake in a nightmare.

Was this just about sex? He’d said it wasn’t but I was suddenly convinced that this was all my fault – I should have made more of an effort on that front. Generally once I’m actually doing the sexing, I like it, but the shameful truth is that in the last couple of years I wouldn’t have minded if we’d never done it again.

Because I was afraid of being the cliché I was, I stepped up to the plate every four weeks or so and tried to fool myself that Hugh hadn’t noticed my lack of enthusiasm.

However, the very last time it had happened – and it was ages and ages ago – Hugh had said, ‘That’s your duty done for another month.’ A second too late, he’d forced out a laugh. (I’d flailed around searching for the right words as he vamoosed in a passive- aggressive scarper.)

Maybe if we’d had a full-and-frank there and then we might have averted this current situation, but clearly we’d both known there was too much at stake.

In a panic, I nudged his sleeping body. ‘Wake up, Hugh, please. We could have more sex.’ My head was racing through all the ways I could persuade him to stay – I could dress up in saucy rig-outs, send him nudie photos of me, make home videos of us riding . . . I was suddenly aghast that I hadn’t done the nudie-photos thing – I suspected he’d like it because whenever nudie photos of celebrities were hacked, a charged atmosphere sprang up between us.

No one could say I hadn’t been warned about the perils of stagnation in a long-term relationship – experts were forever writing about it. Recently I’d read a thing by some American couples’ counsellor who said that to keep the spark alive you had to – and I quote – ‘be each other’s whores’. He’d written an entire book on the subject and for half a second I’d contemplated buying it, then thought, No. I won’t be anyone’s whore.

Now I wish I’d bought the fecking thing.

However, alongside these thoughts a loud voice insisted that no woman should have to do anything she didn’t want to do just to hold on to her man. But maybe if I’d tried them I’d have liked them . . .

‘Wake up!’ I shook him, then fumbled for the switch and light flooded the room.

Oh, why hadn’t I been more adventurous? For the love of God, how hard would it have been to photo my hidey-hole?

But shyness had stopped me. And something else that I was only now seeing properly: an uncomfortable suspicion that our sexual wants were different. In countless ways, Hugh and I were aligned – sometimes it felt as if we actually shared the same brain, and that sense of having an almost-twin was a huge comfort. Except for sex. Buried deep in me was a suspicion that Hugh wanted stuff I didn’t. It had never been vocalized – I was afraid that if it was, he’d become like a stranger.

But, instead, this had happened and it was far worse.

‘Are you awake?’ I asked.

‘Yeah . . .’ He was blinking and trying to sit up.

‘Is this real?’ I asked. ‘Is this really happening?’

‘I’m sorry.’ He tried to hold me.

I pushed him off. ‘We could have more sex.’ I sounded shrill and desperate.

‘Babe,’ he said gently. ‘This isn’t about sex.’

Hope flared, then I forced myself to check, ‘But you might have sex with other people?’

He nodded.

Despair overtook me, followed swiftly by self-revulsion: I was too old, too round, too crap in bed. ‘Is it because I’m a porker?’ I asked.

He actually laughed – a proper laugh, something that hadn’t happened in a while. ‘No. And you’re not anyway.’

‘I am,’ I said. ‘Well, a bit. It’s just, you know, giving up the cigarettes.’

‘It’s not you, it’s me. And I can’t even believe I said that.’

‘If it’s not about sex, what are you looking for?’ Maybe I could provide it.

He shut his eyes and opened them again. ‘Hope, I think. Something like hope, anyway. Excitement, maybe. Possibility.’

Right. I swallowed. Hope. Excitement. Possibility. I knew about them. ‘Newness?’ I said. ‘Freshness? The chance to be a different person, a better version of yourself?’

He looked a little surprised. ‘Yes. Them.’

Well, newness and freshness were things I couldn’t provide. ‘What about the girls?’ I asked.

‘I can tell them tomorrow.’

It was already tomorrow. ‘No.’ Telling the girls would make it real. For as long as only he and I and Carl knew about this, it left the door open for him to change his mind.

‘Kiara’s barely sixteen,’ I said. ‘Who’s going to mind her when I’m away?’ I stayed overnight in London every Tuesday.

‘She can mind herself,’ Hugh said. ‘She’s more grounded than you or me. Or Neeve can be in charge.’

I tried again. ‘Sixteen’s a tricky age for a girl’s dad to disappear for half a year.’

‘Kiara’s an old soul and the most well-adjusted kid you’ll meet.’

‘The thing is, though . . .’ I was going to say that Hugh’s disappearance might change all that, then realized it wouldn’t make any difference: Hugh was doing this no matter what I said. A wave of anguish rushed up in me. ‘Please don’t.’ I grasped his hand.

‘I’m sorry, Amy. I have to.’

‘What if I say no?’

He broke eye contact with me and his silence said it all: he’d go anyway.

Four

I head for Mum and Pop’s in Shankill – when I was growing up, it was practically in the country, but now the south Dublin suburbs have spread out to swallow it and the Friday-evening traffic is heavy. Although it’s early September, the weather is shiny and bright, so people are probably heading for the coast, for the last few rays of summer.

As I inch along my phone rings. It’s Dominik, Pop’s part-time carer. For a long time Maura wouldn’t even hear of us getting a carer for Pop. But Mum has a very full schedule of hospital appointments with her own many ailments, and when Pop was left alone in the house, he was liable to flood the bathroom or to give away Mum’s jewellery to random callers to the door. One time Mum arrived home to discover three strange men – encouraged loudly by Pop, ‘Go on there, lads, now you have her’ – wrestling her washing-machine out of the house and into a van.

But dragging Pop along on Mum’s hospital visits was no longer working because he’d frequently address the nurse with ‘You’ve the look of a young Rosemary West. How many bodies have you buried in your basement?’

So about five months ago Mum displayed some rare gumption and signed up with Camellia Care.

‘Hi, Dominik.’ I wonder why he’s ringing. Maybe Pop had decided to fling his dinner at the wall again. But that hardly counts as news.

‘Amy, your mum is late home and I have next job to get to.’ Dominik is very in demand – very. In the dementia-carers universe, Dominik is Kate Moss.

The thing is that Pop – carrying on the habit of a lifetime – is a difficult patient and often accuses his carers of being serial killers. Even though these people are used to the bizarre insults of dementia patients, Pop wears them down in no time. In the last five months, we’ve gone through a long list. Dominik, who’d spent over twenty years in the Czech Army, is the only one robust enough to cope and we can’t get on the wrong side of him.

‘I’m sure she’ll be home in a few minutes.’ Mum is very reliable.

‘She is already two hours late.’

‘Two hours! Have you rung her mobile?’

‘Certainly I have rung, but it’s on kitchen dresser.’

‘But where’s she gone?’ Mum never goes out except to hospital appointments. ‘What time did she leave?’ I’ve horrible visions of her lying on a pavement, surrounded by concerned strangers trying to establish her identity, and of her, with so little sense of self, unable to tell them.

‘She go at midday.’

Whaaat? But that’s six hours ago!’

‘I can tell time, Amy. And your dad say I am worser than Yorkshire Ripper. Six hours I must listen to him.’

‘But, Dominik, which hospital did she go to? Where –’

‘No hospital today. She go to the fancy lunch –’

‘Wait, what, lunch?’

‘– in the fancy hotel. She say she is going on the piss.’

‘No, Dominik, she’d never say that!’

‘Are you calling me liar? She say to me, “Dominik, I am kicking up my heel and going on the piss.” Those very words.’

This is extremely unlikely, but I need to know more before I draw any conclusions.

‘I’ll be there in ten minutes.’ It’ll be more like twenty-five. I’m a chronic liar about my ETA – there’s simply never enough time.

‘I must leave now,’ Dominik says.

‘Okay, I’ll get someone else over to you ASAP.’

Who should I ring? In the small likelihood that Dominik has his facts straight, I don’t want Mum getting into trouble, so Maura can’t be involved. Instead Derry gets the call.

‘Any chance you could get round to Mum and Pop’s in the next ten minutes?’ I ask. ‘Mum’s MIA and Dominik needs to leave.’

‘So you ring the unmarried daughter?’ Derry says. ‘Poor Derry the spinster. No man, no life, all she’s good for is taking care of elderly parents. Well, times have changed and –’

‘Can you do it or should I ring Joe?’

‘I’m going to Cape Town tomorrow. Good job I didn’t go today, right? I’ll rescue Dominik now, but don’t start thinking this is who I really am.’ She hangs up.

***

Half an hour later I turn off the main road to the cold, ramshackle Victorian house I grew up in. Once it had had lots of land, but by the time Dad bought it, it had all been sold off and a council estate built, so our abode loomed like a giant granite gravestone in a sea of three-bed semis.

My childhood had been spent fantasizing about living in a modest, pebble-dashed terrace with an electric cooker, instead of the Aga we had, which engendered untold suspicion from our neighbours.

The trees on either side of the driveway are so heavy that branches bang and slide on the roof of my car – maybe Hugh could come round to do some cutting over the weekend. But no. Hugh has other priorities now. Suddenly I realize that if he goes, all the practical household stuff becomes my responsibility: changing light bulbs, doing the weekly food shop and – yes, it might be a cliché but it’s still real – the bins. Even seeing a bin gives me the shudders.

The thoughts of Hugh’s extra-curricular riding have been so distressing that I haven’t appreciated how his absence is going to impact on my day-to-day life and, actually, I’m almost more upset about the bins.

Is there any handyman who could be commandeered? Neeve and Kiara don’t have boyfriends. Sofie’s beloved Jackson is a total sweetie, but he’s a wispy pixie-boy, who looks too frail to wheel the bins as far as the gate.

I park up tight behind Derry’s car, to leave enough space for whoever else is coming today, and by the time I’ve got a tower of pizzas out of my boot, Derry has opened the front door.

‘Is she home?’ I’m looking over Derry’s shoulder, hoping to see Mum’s small, apologetic figure in the gloomy hallway.

‘No.’

I step into the house and eye Derry over the stack of food. ‘I’m worried. Should we be worried? Listen, was Dominik all right?’ I live in terror of him leaving us because then I’d be roped in to babysit Pop and I’m already stretched way too thin.

‘He’s a narky feck.’ Derry closes the door behind me.

‘Should we ring the cops about Mum?’

‘Seriously, though, I can’t be the one who gets the call any time things go wrong with Mum and Pop,’ Derry says. ‘It’s bullshit the way single women are treated, as if we don’t have obligations.’

‘Derry!’ She’s always at this lark and usually it’s entertaining. Not so much today. I’ll have to tell her about Hugh soon – it’s weird that I haven’t already.

‘Our society has a pervasive lack of respect for us.’

That might well be true of other single women, but you’d never make that mistake with Derry.

‘Dominik rang me first,’ I say, ‘and I’m married.’ Well, I am. Technically.

‘I could be married too,’ she says.

She probably could. She’s quick-witted, charismatic and successful. Also, scrubs up well. In her natural state she looks like all of us O’Connells with our pale skin, light-coloured eyes and tendency to buttiness. (Urzula says we’re the most Celtic-looking family she’s ever seen.) But via vampire facials, laser resurfacing, silhouette lifts and whatever else you’re having, Derry – a vital four inches taller and ten pounds lighter than me – has turbo-charged her natural assets into impressive hotness. (Yes, I’m jealous: my funds have never even run to a jab of Botox.)

‘You could be married,’ I say. ‘Except if you go round dumping men because they say “ice and a slice” or call ketchup “catsup” –’

‘So I should put up with some gobshite who gets on my nerves just so I won’t be treated like a second-class citizen?’

‘Yeah,’ I say, and we both laugh.

‘WHERE’S YOUR MOTHER?’ Pop bellows from the front room. ‘Give me my stick. I’m going out to look for her.’

‘Take these.’ I shove my armload of pizzas at Derry, pick up Pop’s stick from the hallstand, race through the kitchen into the scullery and shove the stick into the chest freezer. He’s not leaving this house. One missing parent is bad enough. I couldn’t cope with two.

I stick my head into the front room and call, ‘She’ll be home soon, Pop, don’t worry.’

‘I know you!’ His angry expression vanishes. ‘Are you my sister?’

‘No, Pop, I’m Amy, your daughter.’

‘Away to feck! I’ve no children!’

Car doors are slamming outside.

‘It’s Joe,’ Derry calls, before I start thinking it’s Mum.

Our elder brother Joe, his wife Siena, and their three sons, Finn (eight), Pip (six) and Kit (four) pile into the hall. Immediately the boys swarm through the house and into Pop’s domain. Against a backdrop of Pop shouting, ‘PUT THAT FECKEN’ DOWN, YOU LITTLE SCUT!’ I explain the crisis to Joe and Siena.

‘She said she was going on the piss?’ Joe can hardly believe it.

‘So Dominik said,’ Derry says.

‘YOU’LL GET FECKEN’ ELECTROCUTED AND IT’LL BE GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU!’

Joe insists on viewing Mum’s mobile – which is indeed sitting on the kitchen dresser, just like Dominik had said. ‘That’s it, all right,’ he agrees.

‘What should we do?’ I ask.

‘What do you think we should do?’ he counters.

This needs to be said: Joe is useless. Charming, well travelled, but useless.

‘Look, I’ll get the dinner on,’ Siena says. ‘What do I do?’

If I’m to be frank, Siena is also useless. They are the Useless Family. They get by on their looks.

‘Just take the packaging off and sling them into the Aga, as many as you can fit,’ I say.

‘STOP CHANGING THE STATIONS! STOP CHANGING THE STATIONS!’

The front door opens again and my heart lifts. But as quickly as hope ares, it dies: it isn’t Mum. It’s Neeve, my eldest daughter, the light of my life and the scourge of my heart.

‘What’s up?’ She stands in the hall and peels off her jacket. She’s tiny – barely taller than five foot – and very curvy: buxom, neat waist and round little bum. It’s exactly the body-shape I had when I was twenty-two but in those days I’d thought I was fat. I wasn’t – hindsight is a great thing. And maybe in twenty-two years’ time I’ll look back at the cut of me now and think I was pretty hot. Frankly, I can’t imagine it, but I know that sort of thing happens. And not just regarding the size of my butt. I mean, eight months ago I’d thought my life was nothing special but now I’d give all that I own to return and savour every securely married second of it. As that song tells us, we never know what we’ve got till it’s gone.

‘Where’s Granny?’ Neeve gathers her red-gold hair up into a thick, high ponytail and narrows her glinting eyes around the hallway. She may have got her body-type from me but the rest of her is pure Richie Aldin. ‘I’ve stuff for her.’ She indicates a bag crammed to bursting with new make-up.

It is absolute torture to watch as envelopes of cosmetics arrive at our house hoping to feature in Bitch, Please, Neeve’s YouTube channel. If the contents are any good she keeps them, and if they aren’t, they’re rerouted to the deserving poor. I’m rarely among their number.

‘Granny’s missing,’ I say. ‘Dominik says she went on the piss.’

‘The piss?’ Neeve’s demeanour, when she’s talking to me, is set permanently to scornful, but she truly outdoes herself this time. ‘Granny? Is he mental ?’

‘Lovely, don’t say “mental”.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because the mentallers might take offence and –’

‘HERE’S KIARA! HERE’S KIARA! HERE’S KIARA!’ Finn, Pip and Kit explode into the hall to welcome my other daughter, who has just arrived at the front door. She’s in her school uniform. Her shirt has come free from her waistband, her bitten nails are painted with yellow fluorescent pen and she’s bent almost double from the weight of books in her backpack.

‘Guys!’ She shrugs off the backpack, opens her arms wide to the boys and they start clambering up her, as if she’s a climbing frame. She’s the sweet-tempered yin to Neeve’s snarky yang, proof that it’s nature, not nurture. My two girls have very different fathers and very different personalities. Neeve is tricky (at least, she is with Hugh and me: I notice she manages to be nicer to the rest of the world) and Kiara is a sweetie.

‘BRING ME MY STICK! I’M GOING OUT TO LOOK FOR MY WIFE!’

‘Derry?’ I follow the shoal of people into the front room. ‘We should ring the police.’

‘Oka– Hold on! Car outside! It’s Declyn!’

Five years younger than me, Declyn is the baby of the O’Connell family. Everyone – Derry, Neeve, Kiara, Joe, Siena, Finn, Pip and Kit – flows around Pop’s chair and surges to the rattly old bay window.

‘HAS HE THE CHILD?’

‘He’s getting out,’ someone says. ‘It’s just him. Awwwww!’

Sixteen months ago Declyn and his husband Hayden had Baby Maisey (via a surrogate, obviously) and we’re all wild about her. But it means that Declyn without Baby Maisey has no cachet whatsoever.

‘HAS HE THE CHILD? WOULD SOMEONE FECKEN’ ANSWER ME!’

‘No, Pop, he hasn’t,’ I say.

‘WELL, SHIT ON IT ANYWAY.’

‘Pop, we’re all here beside you. There’s no need to shout.’

‘I’M NOT SHOUTING.’

‘Wait!’ Derry exclaimed. ‘He’s getting something out of the back seat!’

‘Could be his man-bag,’ Finn says.

Holding our collective breath, we watch Declyn fiddling around – and a huge cheer goes up when he emerges with Baby Maisey in a car-chair.

Everyone is delighted – everyone except Kit. Quietly he says to me, ‘I hate Baby Maisey.’

‘What? Why?’

‘I used to be the youngest one. I was the favourite.’

I nod. ‘Life is hard, little fella.’

‘I used to be cute.’

‘You’re still cute.’

He gives me a very grown-up look. ‘Don’t,’ he says.

We mass towards the door, and as soon as Declyn sets foot into the hall, the car-seat containing Maisey is ferried into the front room where she’s rolled on the floor and smothered in kisses by her cousins.

Declyn watches with an indulgent smile, then focuses on me. ‘Great dress, Amy. Vintage?’

‘Vintage.’ Or, to put it another way, second-hand. Some of my clothes are proper, expensive, designers-from-the-seventies vintage. But others are from the wardrobes of recently deceased old ladies that sell for half-nothing in Help the Aged. (You could say that I have a personal shopper – a lovely volunteer called Bronagh Kingston, who rings me if good stuff arrives in.) And really there’s no point in being morbid – if the clothes are nice and they’re dry-cleaned twice, isn’t it heart-warming to think of them continuing to give a person pleasure? (If I sound a little defensive, it’s because I have to defend my choices to Neeve who, most mornings, treats me to ‘Dead people’s clothes – niiiiiice . . .’)

Not that my vintage stuff can be worn every day – if there’s an important meeting, especially a pitch to potential clients, I have to corporate-up, in a suit that isn’t cut right for a person of my shortness. But when the client starts to trust me, like Mrs Ever- Dry seems to, my lovely character-filled clothes can be unleashed. (Tim, he doesn’t like them either. Tim likes things done by the book. He’d prefer if I toiled in workaday navy tailoring.)

‘Edwardian governess meets biker chick.’ Declyn spends a few seconds admiring my out t, then suddenly notices Mum’s absence. ‘Where is she?’

‘No one knows,’ I say. ‘She went out to lunch.’

Lunch?

‘But that was six and a half hours ago.’

‘I think she’s home!’ Derry says.

We hurry to the window. A taxi has drawn up outside. Through the tangle of branches we see its back door opening and a tiny woman – Mum – wearing a pink leather jacket come tumbling out. Before she lands bodily on the footpath, she manages to right herself and says something to the taxi-driver that makes her double over, laugh a lot and lean on the side of the car.

‘Is she all right?’ Joe asks.

‘Is she sick?’ This from caring Kiara.

Then Derry articulates what’s becoming clear to us all, as we watch Mum weave her way to the door of the house, her face as pink as her jacket. ‘Is she . . . scuttered?’

‘And what is she wearing?’

‘My jacket,’ Neeve says.

I should have known. Everything is Neeve’s.

We swarm towards the front door. Mum erupts into the hall and we fall on her with cries of distress. ‘Where were you? We’ve been so worried.’

‘I went OUT!’ Mum declares. ‘To a lunch! I got drunk and I won a prize!’ She waves a box of sweets. ‘Turkish Delight! Mint ones!’

‘But, Mum, you should have come home earlier.’

‘I was enjoying myself. I put up with your father all of the time, listening to him talking rubbish about suing the postman for cutting his hair and asking where our dog is when we’ve no dog and –’

‘Granny,’ Neeve says. ‘That’s my jacket! I couldn’t find it when I was leaving last week.’

‘I know!’ Mum beams. ‘I borrowed it by hiding it.’

‘But why didn’t you just ask for it?’

‘Because you’d say no. I wanted it.’ Mum’s eyes are starey and bloodshot. ‘And I’m keeping it.’ She continues to smile in the most uncharacteristically defiant way at Neeve.

Great, I thought, just great. Now Mum has gone mental too. My husband is leaving me and both my parents are mentally ill.

Five

And here’s Maura. Cripes!

‘Everyone,’ I hiss. ‘Act normal.’ I turn to Mum. ‘Especially you.’

Neeve bundles Mum up the stairs and I hurry to greet Maura. Trying not to move my lips, I ask, ‘Who have you told about Hugh?’

‘No one.’

It’s hard to believe that: she’s as leaky as Julian Assange.

‘Keep it that way because the girls don’t even know and, whatever you do, you’re not to tell Sofie.’

‘I haven’t told So e.’

Seized by fear, I say, ‘But you might. And you mustn’t.’

Sofie, aged seventeen, is a fragile little creature. She’s feckless Joe’s eldest child: her mum is the woman who preceded Siena and, for reasons I won’t get into now, she’s lived with Hugh and me since she was aged three (didn’t I tell you we were modern?).

Sofie is extremely attached to Hugh and it wouldn’t be right for her to hear about his sabbatical from anyone but him.

‘I was thinking about Alastair,’ Maura says.

Of course Maura would fall for him – she’s a born interferer and he’s the kind of man that most women want to fix. But I see him, week in, week out, cutting a streak through an endless supply of girls and discarding them like old tea-towels.

‘Maura, cop on, you’re married!’

‘Not for me, you fool. For you! My husband isn’t leaving me.’ Of course he wasn’t. The silent Poor Bastard had had his spirit broken long ago. ‘While Hugh’s away, you should, you know, take your time out with Alastair.’

Honestly, there is almost nothing I’d enjoy less. Hugh’s the only man I want, but if I could bring myself to consider another, Alastair would be close to the bottom of the list. Not at the actual bottom. No. That honour would belong to Richie Aldin.

‘He’s very . . .’ Maura swallows with difficulty and nods ‘. . . sexy.’

‘He’s revolting.’ I’m fond of Alastair, but thinking of him in that way is distressing. You can just tell that he’s a great man for sexual gymnastics. Whenever I imagine him in bed with one of his laydeez (which happens very rarely), the position they’re in is reverse cowgirl and they’re doing a huge amount of bouncing and whooping – the lucky lady is actually wearing a cowboy hat and swinging a lasso above her head.

A craving for nicotine hits me like a blow. Ten months ago, I gave up cigarettes – not that I was a big smoker, just a precious three a day, but it was lung cancer that Hugh’s dad had died from and it had felt disrespectful to continue.

This week has been so tough that there’s a real fear I’ll start again and, in the hope of heading it off, I’ve bought an e-cigarette. ‘I’m just going to . . .’ I head upstairs where, in one of the chilly bedrooms, Neeve is doing Mum’s make-up. They’re seated at a big old dressing-table that would be an up-cycler’s wet dream. Not for me. Too big, too heavy, too gloomy. I sit on the austere old iron bed (no, can’t get excited about that either – too high, too rickety, too creaky) and watch them.

Neeve flicks a glance at me and my e-cigarette. ‘You look like you’re playing a midget’s tin-whistle.’

There is so much that’s wrong with what she’s just said that it’s impossible to know where to start. I settle for ‘You can’t say that word any more.’

‘You can’t say anything any more,’ Mum says. ‘Soon it’ll be a crime to speak. People are too easily offended. So what are they now?’

I wince. ‘Little people. I think.’

‘But Little People are leprechauns. Someone should tell them that we’re sorry but they’ll have to find another word.’

‘Mum, please.’

Mum looks up at Neeve. ‘When you said “tin-whistle” there, did you mean something different?’

Neeve laughs softly. ‘It’s just your dirty mind, Granny.’

‘Have I a dirty mind?’ Mum is delighted.

‘Filthy.’

They collapse into giggles and I watch, ashamed of my jealousy. If Neeve was even a fraction as sweet to me as she is to my mum. . . Mind you, Granny is quite the hit with her granddaughters now. Lately Sofie has been spending the majority of her time here. During the summer just gone, she stopped living with me and Hugh and moved in with Urzula, her mother, in the hope of rebuilding a relationship. Which is in the process of failing. It broke our hearts when Sofie left us and it’s breaking them even more to watch her flail around trying to make Urzula act like a mother. But what can you do? Hugh and I are attempting the near-impossible feat of offering Sofie all the benefits and duties of family, while respecting that she has actual biological parents. These days, Sofie ricochets between Urzula and Mum and Pop but I wish she’d come back to me.

Speculatively Neeve watches Mum’s made-up face in the mirror. ‘You look great, Granny. Maybe I’ll do a vlog with you.’

‘Would I be on telly?’

‘Granny . . .’ A note of warning has entered Neeve’s voice. ‘Don’t make me explain the internet to you again.’

‘No, no. No. I understand it. It’s magic telly for the young people.’

‘You’d be on my YouTube channel.’

‘I don’t want to be on that. The name is mean and – and rude. Imagine me having to tell people I’m on the Bitch, Please show. What does it even mean? Bitch, Please?’

‘I’ll show you,’ Neeve says. ‘Mum. Ask me if you can have all of this make-up.’ She indicates the dressing-table, scattered with a Tom Ford eye palette, a Charlotte Tilbury foundation, several contouring tools and three different lip colours.

Wearily I say, ‘Neeve, can I have all of that make-up?’

Neeve holds up the palm of her hand, side-eyes me and says, in scathing tones, ‘Bitch, please. See, Granny?’

‘No.’

Neeve smiles. ‘Come on, let’s go downstairs.’

Off they go to rejoin the raucous mayhem and I sit in the peaceful bedroom, smoke my e-cigarette and meditatively eye the dressing-table. That stuff would be wasted on Mum. Absolutely wasted. I inhale again and consider that it’s a very sorry state of affairs when you’re reduced to stealing make-up from your seventy-two-year-old mother.

Spurred on by my proximity to cosmetics, I decide to watch the latest on Bitch, Please, and see what Neeve’s recommending this week. There’s the option of asking her in person, I suppose but – and this is a worry – things feel more real if I experience them through my iPad.

This week is an autumn back-to-school special with the Grange Hill theme and cute title sequences featuring falling leaves and acorns – very pretty. And here’s Neeve, her long golden-red hair streaming down over her shoulders, wearing a crocheted hat, scarf and gloves in a dusty blue shade that makes her green eyes pop. In recent times she’s expanded to cover clothes and accessories as well as cosmetics and she’s caustic about ‘the shite’ she gets sent.

But these crocheted pieces are far from shite. They’re embellished with a scatter of Fendi-inspired leather flowers that are adorable but not over-cutesy and the overall effect is so gorgeous I actually groan. To think she’d got those things for free!

I rarely go into her bedroom because she’s an adult woman and entitled to her privacy. And I’m afraid I’ll lose my shit and start sobbing or trying to eat the lipsticks.

In my more fanciful moments I think sleeping in her bedroom must be akin to sleeping in a giant make-up bag – even though the cramped space is full of her camera, lights and computer, and the walls are lined with stacks of workaday brown boxes, everything as grimly efficient as a mini-warehouse.

Like in a job . . . because it is a job.

Not one that makes any money, though. Neeve’s rent to me and Hugh is paid using the barter system, by her joining in the house-cleaning we do every Sunday. (This double-jobs as family quality time.)

Her absence of an income is a worry. She has a degree in marketing from UCD, but instead of getting a job in some multi-national, like her fellow graduates, she decided that making vlogs in her bedroom was a viable career path.

And maybe it is.

Because the world is different from when I was her age, right? These days, kids experiment with several irons in the fire, and God knows Neeve works hard. Filming and editing the vlog is the tip of the iceberg. Most of her time is spent badgering advertisers or buttering up publicists. In addition, to keep herself in beer money, she hostesses two nights a week in some ‘skeevy-ass club’.

Now, on the vlog, she’s talking about new, exciting things in the make-up world, starting off with a primer from Marc Jacobs. She’s making it sound so great that my knuckles are clenched white with longing. Next up is a foundation and she’s less impressed with that. Oooooh. Not impressed at all. She delivers an entertaining rant on its failings, and ends by saying, ‘Aw, naw.’ She sounds just like a Long Island matron and she makes me laugh. She’s a natural comedian and manages to deliver negative reviews without coming across like a bag of bile. There’s a twinkle to her, a narky charm, and if only she wasn’t so spiky with me . . .

I know it’s for reasons she probably doesn’t understand but have everything to do with me no longer being married to her dad. And I’m powerless over that and powerless over her and powerless over everything, including Hugh going away, and I don’t like all these horrible feelings that I’ve no control over, and then I discover that the Marc Jacobs primer isn’t among the free stuff on the dressing-table, so I click to buy it and I’m furious to discover that it’s not available in Ireland and they won’t post it from abroad and the only place in London that sells it is Harrods and it’s impossible for me to go to Harrods because it’s like being trapped in an Escher painting.

Terrible memories of previous visits come at me, of going round and round, from hall to hall, every one of them filled with wired-up crocodile-skin handbags that each cost more than my car. Like in a nightmare, there’s exit sign after exit sign but a panicky certainty that the door will never appear –

Cripes, I’d better see how the dinner is doing!

Stealthily I relieve Mum of the Tom Ford eye palette, then go back down to the kitchen where Siena has managed to not burn anything. ‘I’ll take it from here,’ I say.

Vaguely she says, ‘Someone needs to bring the garden chairs into the dining room.’

There are so many of us that there are never enough real chairs to go round.

The front door slams again and this time it’s Jackson, Sofie’s boyfriend – he has his own key?

I suppose it’s no real surprise: he’s very much part of the family. Into the kitchen he wafts – there’s a lot of floaty-scarf action, skinny, skinny jeans and gorgeous, Versailles-style hair – and gives me a hug. I have to admit I miss him almost as much as I miss Sofie.

‘Sofie coming?’ I ask him.

‘Soon. Need anything done here?’

‘Aaah . . .’ Siena, drinking wine and gazing into her phone, seems to have no plans to fetch the chairs in. ‘Chairs from the garden.’

His look is wry. ‘You think I’m strong enough to carry them?’

‘Just about.’ Jackson’s weakling status is an on-going joke. ‘They’re only plastic.’

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