‘Mammy! Lookit! Mammy, lookit! Mammy! Mam! Lookit! Mam! Mam! Mammy! Mam!’
Nancy Cole continued staring at the toaster. Its contents were about to pop. As soon as they did so, she would turn around and bear witness to whatever it was that had so excited her older son. Until that moment came, she wouldn’t move a muscle.
This was something she had only recently started doing – inventing little rules, lines that she wouldn’t cross. One day recently she had found herself vowing that she wouldn’t swallow her latest mouthful of tea until her younger son stopped banging his xylophone with her good spatula. She wound up drooling down her chin and almost choked to death while attempting to stifle a sneeze, but she held out. You didn’t have to be a trained professional, she knew, to see what was going on here. These were attempts to exert some small measure of control. A darker personality might have resorted to self-harm; Nancy stared at her toaster.
The toast popped. As ever, both slices cleared the device entirely and flopped on the counter-top like landed fish. Free at last, Nancy spun around. She immediately regretted not having done so sooner. Aidan, it seemed, had been painting the wall behind him with Weetabix.
‘No!’ she cried, grabbing a cloth and dashing across the lino. ‘No, no, no! Anything but Weetabix! That stuff dries like conc-’
The words died in her throat in the moment when her bare left foot slipped on a discarded bib and rammed with some speed into the table leg. She lost her balance somewhat but not enough to bring her crashing to the floor. That she wound up there anyway was due to the fact that her knees buckled (and her stomach flipped and her eyes bulged) as a bolt of bright white pain shot up from her toes to the crown of her head and back again.
‘Mammy falled,’ Aidan noted, in the flat tone of a news-reader reporting a nil-all draw.
A couple of seconds went by before Nancy’s brain diverted enough energy to her limbs to enable her to move. She tucked her legs underneath her body, grabbed the edge of the table for support, and hauled herself upright. Almost as soon as she was vertical, Luke picked up his Fireman Sam plate and flung it at her face. She just had time to register his small grunt of effort, which put her in mind of an Olympian unleashing a discus, before the plate connected with the bridge of her nose. It was made of thin plastic, but it certainly didn’t feel that way.
‘No!’ she said, rubbing this fresh injury. ‘Please, honey! No throwing plates! No throwing anything, in fact.’
Luke’s head dipped a little. He wasn’t into the whole language thing yet, but knew a rebuke when he heard one. Nancy hobbled over to to the wall and got to work on the Weetabix.
‘I think we’ve talked about this before, Aidan, haven’t we? Sweetie? About the Weetabix on the wall?’
The boy looked away. ‘Nyuh,’ he said.
For a three year-old, Nancy mused, he was quite the politician. She didn’t have the strength to press him on the issue. Her foot hurt. Her nose hurt. She was so tired she could feel it in her hair.
‘Exactly,’ she said and went back to cleaning the wall. ‘Nyuh.’
Nancy’s husband Stephen was having a shower. He had finished washing and was standing perfectly still, his eyes closed, his arms folded. The water was not merely hot – it was just shy of scalding. This was a matter of policy. It wasn’t a proper shower, in Stephen’s book, if it didn’t hurt a little.
‘My key strength, Bill,’ he said, ‘is my tenaciousness ... my ten- ... acious … nicity … tenacity. My key strength, Bill, is my tenacity.’
He frowned. Tenacity? He was sure that was right, but it didn’t sound right.
‘So often in work, as in life, it’s tempting to say, “Okay, I give up. This is just too hard.” But I always stick at it. From the day I started working here, my motto has always been ...’
He frowned harder still and shook his head. This was exactly the sort of slip-up he had to avoid – launching into a sentence without having a clear plan for where it was going. He tried again.
‘I always stick at it. I grab on and I won’t let go, no matter what.’
An image came to mind: a small dog, grimly humping its master’s leg and resisting all efforts to dislodge it. This, he knew at once, was the end of the ‘grabbing on’ analogy. If he used it in front of Bill now, he would picture the dog and perhaps, for the first time ever, he would laugh in the Big Man’s presence. A bubble of anxiety swelled in his abdomen. Why hadn’t he been more methodical about this? He’d known the date and time of this meeting – this interview – for over a week. He could have prepared potential answers properly, on paper, maybe even role-played the thing with Nancy. Instead, he had told himself that it was good to keep it loose and fluid, to have some ideas, but not to tie himself down to any specific forms of words. And now look. The interview was mere hours away and he was standing in the shower trying desperately to think of anything, anything at all, but a dog humping a leg.
Five minutes later, he had dried himself off and dressed in the marginally nicer of his two suits. He was half-way down the stairs when he paused and patted his pockets. No phone. He turned and stepped back, not to the master bedroom or to the boys’, but to the smallest one, across the hall. The box room, Nancy called it. Stephen went along with that, but privately he knew it as the Game Room. The games were of the video variety and all told, between discs, cartridges and downloads, he had somewhere north of seven hundred of them. They filled every inch of the limited shelf-space and still they tottered in piles on the floor, the desk, the window-sill. He had his fair share of hardware too: a SNES, a Wii, a PlayStation 3, a DS, an Xbox 360 and a killer PC. This last was his darling, his love, his sweet, sweet baby. He had built it himself from parts and was sometimes frightened by how it meant to him. These machines were useless, of course, without displays, and Stephen had three, all crammed side by side on the desk that just about fit between the walls: the PC was hooked up to a twenty-four inch monitor; the PS3 and the Xbox sat beneath a thirty-two inch TV; the SNES and the Wii had to make do with an old portable CRT that had a dodgy speaker and was prone to suddenly turning everything green. Stephen never felt even the slightest twinge of embarrassment about his games and the equipment on which he played them. But he had to admit that, given the choice, he wouldn’t like anyone from work to see any of his figurines or posters. The latter tended towards the garish and the former could easily be confused for a child’s action figures – which they most certainly were not. (They were superbly-crafted memorabilia that married exquisite attention to detail with a rich sense of gaming heritage.) Most people, he felt sure, would understand that a person who liked video games was liable to have a lot of them – but they might look askance at, say, his twelve-inch Master Chief with eighteen points of articulation.
His phone was on the desk between his keyboard and the fifth gaming mouse he’d bought in the last twelve months. He snatched it up, took a moment to straighten his framed poster of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, and left.
When Stephen stepped into the kitchen he was pleased to see that Luke immediately gave him a huge grin and the frantic windmilling of one arm that was his version of a wave. He responded in kind and then, as he cleared the doorway, noticed that there was a crisis afoot. Crises were not rare, of course, but this one was happening in silence and that, somehow, seemed to indicate that it was serious.
‘What’s wrong?’he asked, jockeying to get a better look at what was going on. Nancy was on the floor, wrestling with Aidan. It wasn’t immediately clear if she was trying to hold him down or haul him up. ‘Nancy?’
After a moment, she got him where she apparently wanted him, on his back, splayed across her lap. She pulled his jaw open and poked a few fingers in there. Aidan squealed in horror.
‘Something in there,’ she said.
‘What? What is it?’
No reply. More poking. Aidan, Stephen now realised, wasn’t squealing in horror – he was laughing. His teeth closed down on his mother’s fingers but she didn’t give up. And then, at last, she held her prize aloft. It was a a triple-A battery.
Stephen snorted. ‘A battery! Dude! If you’re short on energy, have a banana.’
Nancy gently pushed Aidan off her lap. He sprang to his feet and ran off down the hall, laughing. She got to her feet and peered at her husband.
‘He could have choked. He could have choked to death.’
‘It was a pretty good joke, though.’
‘Oh no it wasn’t.’
‘Oh yes it was.’
‘Oh no it- … This is panto, Stephen. We’re doing panto.’
‘Oh no we aren’t.’
He thought that was funny too, but it didn’t earn him a smile either. Not many of his lines had, of late. He’d never kidded himself that Nancy found him hilarious, but she usually had the energy to fake it. Should he say something, he wondered? She wasn’t herself these days and he was beginning to get a little worried. Before he could decide one way or the other, Aidan returned to the kitchen at full speed, announcing at extraordinary volume that he was a helicopter. Stephen swept him up and waved him through the air, making the appropriate noises, before crash-landing him back into his chair.
‘What do you think, boys?’ he asked. ‘Do you like Daddy’s suit? Do I look promotable? I tell you what, Luke — if Daddy lands this job, you might get get that new nappy you’ve been harping on about.’ He turned to his eldest. ‘And you, my friend — well, I’ll buy you all the batteries you can eat.’
He held his hands up in apology. ‘Scratch that. Batteries are off the menu.’
‘Sit down,’ she said. ‘I have more toast on here.’
‘You know what, don’t worry about breakfast for me today.’
‘What? Why? It’ll only take a minute. You’ve got loads of time.’
‘Actually, I was thinking I might try that new cafe by the butchers. I need a few minutes of peace and quiet. Get my head straight for the interview.’
Her face seemed to run through several different expressions in under a second. ‘Peace and quiet? Oh, yeah. I think I’ve heard of that.’
He sensed trouble. ‘Is it okay with you? If I split?’
She shrugged. ‘Yeah.’
Stephen took the plunge. ‘I just- … Is everything all right?’
‘Why wouldn’t it be?’
‘That’s what I’m asking.’
She smiled but only briefly and not at all convincingly. ‘I’m fine.’
A long pause. ‘Okay.’
‘Off you go, then. Boys, say bye-bye to Daddy.’
Aidan and Luke made several loud noises each. Stephen skipped across to kiss each of them on the forehead. ‘See you later. Be good for Mammy.’
He stepped back to Nancy and kissed her too, then stood there waiting for a second. She didn’t take the hint. Again: worrying.
‘You’re not going to wish me good luck in my interview?’
‘Oh! I forgot. Sorry, sorry. Good luck. You’ll be great.’
‘I hope so. I’ve never got the impression that I’m Bill’s favourite.’
‘You’ll be great,’ she repeated flatly.
He hesitated. Should he make a renewed effort to weasel it out of her? No. He’d asked and she said she was fine. What else was a guy supposed to do?
Stephen had been gone for no more than five minutes when Nancy realised that this was bin day and she’d forgotten to tell him to put them out (he never remembered on his own). Gritting her teeth against this minor annoyance, she flounced out through the back door and did the necessary herself. It was recycling week, which was some consolation — those bins were always lighter. The sky was only lightly clouded and it wasn’t cold. For Dublin in June, that counted as a beautiful day. On her way down the front path for the second time (Compostable), Nancy caught the eye of the tubby woman who’d moved in across the street a few months back — Deirdre, was it? Denise? She was on her way to work and didn’t look at all happy about it. Nancy nodded hello, deposited the bin at the kerb, and turned back towards the house. Just then another neighbour emerged. This time it was Julie from next door. As ever, she was dressed like one of those women in commercials who run major corporations and don’t have time for headaches.
‘Good morning,’ Julie called across the low wall that divided their homes.
Nancy pulled her tatty old dressing-gown a little tighter around her waist. ‘Hiya.’
‘How are you?’
‘Couple of broken toes and a broken nose so far. But sure it’s only eight o’clock. Plenty of time yet for a spinal injury or maybe a nice skull fracture.’
Julie stared, still smiling, but clearly lost.
‘I’m grand,’ Nancy clarified. ‘How’s Nicola? Is she over that bad dose?’
‘Nope. Poor wee thing. Look at the cut of her.’ She waved up at the first floor. Nancy saw that Julie’s husband, Vincent, was standing by the bedroom window with Nicola in his arms. Even at this distance, it was obvious that the little girl was still heavy-eyed and encrusted with mucus, as she had been for a week or more. Vincent nodded down at her. Nancy waved.
They’d been neighbours for a couple of years now, not close but always on good terms. There had never been so much as a ‘Please turn the music down’ from either side. Nancy didn’t know for sure but she suspected that the McNamaras were in the same boat as herself and Stephen, property-wise: they’d bought into this little early-nineties development in Artane thinking it would suit quite nicely as a foot on the ladder, then watched in deep shock as the economy imploded, leaving them with no chance of moving on any time soon.
‘You’d want to hear her in the middle of the night,’ Julie said. ‘She sounds like she’s gargling mud, God love her. Anyway — I’m late. Gotta run.’
‘Me too,’ Nancy said. ‘I left Ronnie and Reggie on their own. Say hi to the real world for me.’ In her head, it had been a cheerful farewell, the sort of line that barely registers on the recipient. In reality, it had come out sad and defeated and … small. She forced a smile and went inside again.
Half an hour later, Nancy was attempting to have a shower. The boys were in the bathroom with her, of course. She had already issued non-specific warnings to both of them – just vague entreaties to be good and careful and stationary. Now, as she poked her head out from behind the curtain for the twentieth time, she saw that it was time to get specific. Aidan was sitting on the floor, with a bag of cotton balls, and had apparently popped a few into his mouth; his cheeks had gone hamsterish. Luke was on his knees by the toilet, looking for all the world like a tiny drunk who was about to lose his post-pub kebab. All the while looking her right in the eye, he dipped a finger into the water and sucked it.
‘Luke! What have I told you about drinking from the toilet? Aidan, gimme. Please. Gimme. Give that to Mammy …’
She leaned out to grab the bag of cotton balls and immediately felt the bath mat slip a little underneath her. There was just enough time for her to lament the fact that not slipping was the thing’s only function in life before it gave way completely and shot up the side of the bath. She pitched forward like someone diving into a swimming pool, taking with her not just the shower curtain but the pole from which it hung. It was some consolation, she supposed, that she missed punching Aidan in the face as she landed. There was little else to celebrate. She’d bashed her knees against the edge of the bath and her left wrist, which had taken most of the impact, hurt like hell. Although they hadn’t suffered fresh violence, her toes seemed to be throbbing with renewed enthusiasm too. Then there was the whole dignity thing. Half-covered by wet shower curtain, ass in the air, it was hard to feel like a big success. For a moment, she couldn’t move. The problem wasn’t physical. She simply felt exhausted, in the literal sense — not merely tired but utterly depleted. Dragging her legs out of the bath, removing her rapidly-cooling caul and getting to her feet seemed like an impossible task. You might as well ask her to be at the source of the Amazon by lunch-time. But matters were taken out of her hands. As she lay there, scarcely able to pant, she heard a sound that she recognised as Aidan beginning the process of choking to death on a cotton ball. Sighing deeply, she crawled forward to save his life again.