Look at the state of the place. And look at the state of him, leaning on the shovel, borrowed no doubt, gawking at the plane playing hide and seek with the clouds. The shirt clinging to his back. That’ll be last night’s drink trying to escape. He’s not what I expected in a son-in-law. The pneumatic drill will be thumping in his head. Serves him right. I’ve a good mind to yell in his earhole.
Every weed known to man has found its way to that mountain of topsoil where I thought he’d have a lawn laid. Legions of nettle, thistle, and dandelions. It’s like the word’s gone out–’Come on over, yer man’s an eejit.’
What would the girls at bridge think if they saw this eyesore? I hope those bramble tendrils cut the legs off him.
‘’Morning, Ed, darling. You’re at the weeds again, I see.’
‘Yeah, I’ll give them another lash of weed killer later, but I think they’re immune to the stuff… I wonder where that’s headed. Maybe Majorca, or the Canaries… Jeez, I’d love a holiday. Claire’s in the kitchen, ironing a couple of my shirts. I’ll have a cuppa with ye.’
I’m sure he will. His tongue stuck to his palate, going on about a holiday. As if he’s not already away with the fairies.
‘Take your time. I baked and made raspberry jam for you pair of lovebirds last night. I’ll get Claire to stick on the kettle and heat the scones.’
‘You’re a star. Watch your step. The rain soaked those planks.’
‘I’m used to the obstacle course by now.’
Planks. I ask you. Planks are one thing. This is a war- zone more like. The bungalow plonked in the corner of Tommy McCarthy’s misshapen acre. The few tons of hardcore dumped where the bulldozer gouged an entrance, swallowed by the muck and long since gone. As is the builder, who scarpered when the money ran out. Rubble everywhere and you’d drown if you fell into one of those trenches, filled with Lord alone knows what. No high heels here. I’m wearing wellies, trying to get in and out without breaking my neck. Thankfully, there are concrete floors inside. Imagine the mess if they’d carpets?
‘Hi, love, is it safe to come in?’
‘Yeah, Ed says he’s defeated the last battalion of mice. There was a tiny gap by the sink, he’s blocked it and the traps haven’t been touched for two days.’
‘Thank goodness for that.’
He’ll be acting the hero now. Hunter, gatherer, protector, all that.
‘Were ye out last night?’
‘Nah, I didn’t bother. Ed went for pints with the lads after work and met the rugby guys in the Corner House later. I’m getting my hair done this afternoon, so we’ll probably go out tonight.’
‘Did you have time to look at curtains? That rug pinned to the bedroom window looks awful from the road.’
‘I know what I’d love to buy, but the mortgage is crippling us. The interest rate has gone up again. Did you see? 18% now? How they expect people to pay that, I don’t know. We’d be sleeping and eating off the floor if it wasn’t for you, Mum.’
Here he comes, puffing and panting like a hound after the chase. At least he’s kicked off those manky boots.
‘I got the whiff of the scones. Is the brew ready?’
After gulping down the cuppa, Ed applied copious amounts of butter and jam, topped the lot with mountains of cream, and scoffed his scone in one go. Then, with a raspberry streak on his chin, he headed off to scavenge in the hedgerows for firewood. Firewood! I ask ye. Oh, they had central heating, but no oil, and no money for any either. 18% and all that. Thankfully, the sun was giving its first lick of summer and they wouldn’t look like Travellers for much longer lugging barrow loads of kindling.
Ed came back as I was about to run the gauntlet, risking life and limb to get to my car.
‘Met the postman outside, the usual bundle of begging letters. Have another mug of tea and thanks again for the telly. I got it working with the rabbit's ears.’
Claire flicked through cheerless brown-window envelopes and dumped the junk. A flyer announcing direct flights to Athens caught my eye. Then it sounded like there was an explosion in her brain. A wonderful one. Squealing and whooping, words running into one another, she waved an official-looking letter in Ed’s face.
‘It’s here,’ she said. ‘It’s here. The grant is here.’
Ed looked as if someone had plugged him into the mains. He was jumping and bouncing about before the two of them began jiving about the kitchen, their smiles getting wider and wider like children on Christmas morning.
‘Will one of you tell me what’s here?’
‘Mum, it’s the grant. The new house grant from the government. A thousand pounds. It’s more than I make in three months.’
‘That’s fantastic. I’m thrilled for the pair of you.’
Calm restored and after more tea, Himself went back to conquer Everest and the weeds. I started a list.
‘First thing Monday, I’ll get curtain books from Dorothy, I know her from bowls. She’ll give us a good deal. Then, I’ll call and pick up wallpaper and paint cards from Colour it Right and give James in Floors Alive a shout. He’s expensive, but top quality.’
‘Thanks, Mum. I’m so excited.’
The next few weeks were frenetic. Using a milk crate for a stepladder, we measured. Walls, windows and floors, length by breadth. Confusion, as my yards, feet and inches clashed with Claire’s centimetres and metres. I left the maths to her. In the kitchen, the picnic table I’d given them groaned under tomes of carpet books. I kept fit crossing the gangplank, a volume of wallpaper samples under each arm acting as ballast. We scoured through the lot ‘til we were cross-eyed.
With a to-do-list that filled my notebook, a thousand pounds wouldn’t go far. It would be tight, but with my connections, they could do the bed and living rooms, tile the kitchen, and maybe carpet the hall. I’d suggested to Himself that he might make a start on the paths and that mountain of soil he played with every month. He looked at me as if I’d announced an intention to do a poo; ‘Can’t do anything too physical ‘til the season ends. We’re in the County Cup final in three weeks. I can’t risk getting injured pulling and dragging stuff around. Anyway, the place is all muck after the rain.’
Struggling, but showing the patience of Job, I kept my gob shut.
And then… and then… well… the end of the month came, and payday for them both. Claire invited me for dinner on the last Sunday, as per usual. My contribution; a delicate white for both of us, Himself would gannet the red, a cheapie Rioja. Roast beef with all the trimmings and homemade Yorkshire puddings to boot. And the calorie crammed eclairs were yummy. A pleasant evening, although I thought the two of them were childishly giddy. We joked at the surreal scene, concrete floor, the wobbly table laden with gourmet food on bone chinaware and finest crystal. They had done well on the wedding presents a year earlier except for the four toasters, three kettles and the usual mantelpiece fodder. Lifting my long-stemmed goblet, I was about to propose a toast to the imminent decorating, but Claire beat me to it.
‘Mum, we’ve news.’
I almost choked on the Chablis.
‘What? I’m going to be a granny. Oh my God, I can’t believe it, but I didn’t think you were planning to start so soon.’
‘No, no, no, Mum. Don’t be silly. I’m not preggers. We’re going on holiday.’
I managed a weak ‘What?’ and despite the wine, my colour drained, and I felt a migraine coming on.
‘Two days in Wexford wasn’t much of a honeymoon, and Ed says we deserve a holiday. And do you know Mum, you can fly direct to Athens? Anyway, we’ve decided to use the grant money to go island hopping in Greece. For three weeks. Would you be able to give us a lift to the airport next Saturday?’
9th May 1981- the details chiselled in my brain.
And they went. I went to see Dr Murphy. He prescribed a mild sleeping tablet and suggested I cut down on the G&T’s in the evening. The cheek of him. Those junior doctors think they know it all. I reminded him I’d survived a World War and would get over this bombshell.
I gave a few of the walls a lick of emulsion when they were away, but the list went in the bin. Postcards arrived from Paros, Ios, Mykonos and some place that sounded akin to something you’d catch… Sifnos, I think it was. They came home bronzed and broke. I got the obligatory bottle of ouzo, which I later used to strip the paint off a bedside locker.
For weeks, Ed first regaled then bored me with tales of their adventures.
‘Did I tell you we slept on beaches a few nights? The stars were awesome.’
‘Sounds so romantic.’ But no mention of the mosquitoes or other creepy crawlies.
‘Yeah, gazing at the stars makes you think of things… like infinity… even eternity.’ Looks as if we’ve a philosopher in the family now.
‘And the ferries were amazing. They go everywhere… and on time.’
Sardined into the petrol-scented bowels of a Greek ship isn’t my idea of a holiday.
‘And we brought back loads of photos. Getting them developed at the end of the month.’
I’d had enough and was ready for home when a beaming Claire added. ‘And that’s not all we brought back.’
‘I was going to wait. Y’know, ‘til it’s safe. Superstition and all that. But I can’t. You’re going to be a granny. I’m two months gone.’
It took me a few seconds to cop on, though her words were plain enough. Then it was me jigging around the kitchen, as happy as a dog with ten tails and all ten of them wagging.
Back home, I rummaged and found my knitting bag. Took a few days to find my rhythm, but I got going. Cardigans and socks and bunnies and blankets. Maybe it was after staring at the stars, but Ed calmed down a tad when fatherhood loomed. Working at the speed of a drifting iceberg, he made slow headway and finally conquered his Everest. He wasn’t slow to moan about his aching back and blistered hands though, the poor little wounded hero. Claire, as thin as the garden rake to begin with, did her bit, hauling away bucket after bucket of stone before becoming the self-appointed Minister for Blossoms and Blooms. When finished, it felt as if they’d turned a corner. Some of the mayhem had evaporated. The emerald green lawn running down to the hawthorn hedgerows gave the house a settled feel.
Susie arrived safe and sound and beautiful. Chaos returned, but it was just the chaos of a child. I spoiled her rotten, of course, but that’s what grannies are for.
Masons laid paths, and Ed surprised everyone by building an acceptable low, dry-stone boundary wall. Progress, I thought. But Claire’s blood pressure rocketed when he arrived home with the remnants of an ancient school desk; ‘You’re not bringing that junk in here. Where’d you get it?’
‘I rescued it from a skip.’
In it came, and nights of sanding, varnishing, and cursing saw it restored. I don’t know where he got them, but seeing the inkwell, complete with brass lid, brought back memories. As did a blackboard he acquired from God knows where. The walls of the room he’d commandeered were covered with stencils of animals, trees, and a giant rainbow.
‘All ready for Susie,’ he said. ‘I think she’ll be a teacher.’
Mission accomplished; they headed off again. A bargain, last-minute cancellation. Where else but Greece? I said nothing, but was thrilled. I’d have Susie, who had taken her first steps, all to myself for the week.
It was lovely, that time with Susie. You forget, between your children and your grandchildren, all the fun of having a whole young person to yourself.
And they brought home more good news. I said to them, ‘Most people bring home a few bottles of duty-free,’ but I was only messing. Linda, the little darling, arrived the following Spring.
‘Must be something in the water,’ suggested Ed.
‘More like something in the drink,’ I said. ‘’Tis a wonder you didn’t call one of the girls, Alexandra or Athena or something.’
‘Maybe next time.’
‘Hold on a sec here,’ said Claire. ‘There won’t be any next time. Finito. I won’t go as far as making you have the snip, but I might just hide your passport.’
We laughed, raised our glasses, and offered thanks for our blessings.
Time slips by, especially with two young girls in the house. The far-from-finished house. Rooms are a work-in-progress, one at a time. The bedrooms are painted and carpeted and undeniably snug, but elsewhere, concrete reigns supreme. In the living room, family photos, a window to times past, fill a wall. My favourite: a grainy image of great-grandparents, Cornelius, ramrod straight in his Sunday best and Nora, forbidding, enthroned alongside in all her finery.
Thankfully, the driveway is finished. The bitter-sweet smell of asphalt lingers on hot days. I like the contrast with the earthy cow dung aroma from McCarthy’s nosy cattle who peer over the wall.
We’re doing a barbecue this evening and I’m in charge of the salads. While picking lettuce, radishes, and spring onions from the raised bed, I’m peeking in at the girls in the playroom. Susie is busy squiggling shapes on the blackboard. Her friends, arms folded, legs crossed, cosy up on the floor, while a menagerie of teddies sit at the desk waiting for class to begin. Linda is busying herself crawling through an obstacle course of toys.
Ed arrives back after cutting my grass and hedge and fixes me a house-measure G&T. He cooks the obligatory sausages for starters, then he’s off like the Pied Piper, the children in tow, frolicking about, smiles as wide and bright as the sun, queueing up for spins in his wheelbarrow. The girls chattering as loud as the cluster of blackbirds in the whitethorn; the boys concentrating on the scabs on their knees. It’s intoxicating, infectious, and perfect. Perfect, except for that plane thundering overhead. The kitchen windows rattle in protest.
‘C’mon Gran,’ says Susie, ‘Let’s play aeroplanes.’
And so, here I am, arms outstretched, soaring, swooping, and laughing.
‘Where’s that one going, Gran?’
‘Haven’t a clue, love. Maybe Majorca or the Canaries or even Athens.’
Looking skywards, I wonder if anyone on board is as irresponsible and daft as my pair were.
I do hope so.
A story from a recently finished collection of childhood memories. 30k in total. Looking for a publisher.
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