Christmas in Kilrenane (a short story)
It took two weeks for Owen to convince his youngest kids that he was qualified to help them put up the decorations. With just a week to go before Christmas and no other applicants coming forward, Gary and Emma finally agreed to hire him. Their mother normally did the job, but she was in Donegal with her sister, who was recovering from a back operation. Owen suspected that the patient didn't really need Monica's help anymore. She'd pretend that she was incapable of making a cup of tea just to keep Monica away from Owen. He knew that Eileen, the sister, didn't like him. She had never told him so, but if she ever did he'd wonder why she'd become so talkative. He was used to being ignored by her, and he welcomed it because it meant that he didn't have to put much effort into pretending that he liked her.
Gary was ten and Emma was nearly eight. They had an older brother and a sister. Louise was fourteen, and on the Friday evening when Owen finally began work as an assistant decorator, she was upstairs, pretending she had as much interest in decorations as she had in her father's many stories about trying to outsmart fish. Ronan was nineteen. He was going to college in Dublin. He was due to arrive home for Christmas later that evening, if he could be prized away from his girlfriend, Lisa. Gary and Emma missed having their mother around, especially at this time of year. Owen was doing his best to take her place. He had assumed that his job with the decorations would be fairly straightforward. Monica would have it done in a few hours. In the past, he'd come home from work one evening in December and find that every square inch of house had been decked with boughs of holly, reams of tinsel, thousands of plastic Santas, reindeer and snowmen, and enough lights to triple their electricity bill for a few weeks.
Owen decided to start with the tree. He thought he'd just have to put the tree in its usual spot near the living room window and let the kids take care of decorating it. He managed to put up the tree without too much difficulty, and then the kids enthusiastically set about their task, but few of the decorations ended up on the tree. Emma put four baubles on the branches, and for each one of them she asked her father where she should put it. Gary never asked. He just kept putting baubles on the antlers of a reindeer, a wooden Christmas ornament on the sideboard. He was counting them. Fifteen so far.
"Where does this one go?" Emma asked her father.
"Why don't you decide this time," Owen said.
She thought about it for over a minute, tapping her index finger on her chin as she thought, occasionally looking around. Then a light bulb seemed to come on over her head and it lit up her face in a smile. She put the bauble on the antler of the reindeer on the sideboard.
"Sixteen," Gary said.
Owen went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. The silence of the kitchen was still strange, even after three weeks. He could never figure out how she managed to bake so much coming up to Christmas. He refused to even contemplate where all that food went to. The kitchen table should be lost beneath a pile of flour, puddles of buttermilk and mountains of egg shells. Owen would feel as if he was walking on the egg shells. When she first went to Donegal he appreciated the peace. It was nice to be able to walk freely around the kitchen without being shouted at, but the novelty soon wore off. Peace became unnerving -- he just wasn't ready for it. After he plugged in the kettle he felt like turning on the food blender and the extractor fan as well. He'd even welcome having Monica shout at him because he wanted to know where the eggs were.
Owen couldn't remember the last time he had a proper conversation with his wife. He had tried to have one with her on the phone on the previous night, but she thought he'd been drinking. They used to have proper conversations once. They spoke about all sorts of things, from patio tables to space travel, even the whereabouts of eggs. But that seemed so long ago. If he spoke about space travel now she'd think he was on drugs. When the water in the kettle had boiled, the silence returned, but it didn't last long. It was shattered by the sound of a bauble-laden wooden reindeer falling off the sideboard in the living room.
"Twenty-one," Gary said.
Drinking tea in the kitchen in silence was starting to become depressing, so Owen was glad when Ronan arrived home. Gary and Emma came into the kitchen to say hello, but Louise stayed in her room. She didn't want him to think she cared.
Gary's interest in his older brother didn't last long. "I wonder how many baubles you could hang off the dancing Santa," he said. He left to find out, and Emma followed him.
"Do you want a cup of tea?" Owen said to Ronan.
"Is something wrong?"
"Absolutely nothing is 'wrong'. Well, not 'nothing'. There are wars and famines and things. And I can't find my watch. I'd look for it, but I don't really need it. Still, I'd like to find it."
"Are you sitting down?"
"You can see that I'm standing."
"Yeah, sorry. I imagined doing this on the phone. I was going to call you last night, but Jeremy called with his brother who had an amazing wound on his leg. I spent the evening trying to guess what caused it."
"Do you want me to sit down?"
"No, I was only going to ask you if you were sitting down because, y' know, it's kind of like a way of saying 'I have some big news'. But 'I have some big news' is a much better way of saying it."
"What is it?"
"I have some big news. And it's good news. Myself and Lisa have a Christmas surprise for you. A present. Because it is an extraordinary gift, when you think about it. We were going to wait until after Christmas to tell people because we'd already bought some of our Christmas presents, but someone has been ruining the surprise. I won't mention any names. Because I can't remember her name. I keep thinking her name is Barbara, but it's not Barbara because every time I call her Barbara she says, 'If you call me Barbara once more I'll stick this fork in your eye.' And she takes out a fork. She carries it around with her in case anyone attacks her. You just have to look in her eyes to know she's not the sort of person you should attack. If you saw her in a crowd you'd have no trouble identifying her as the person most likely to carry a fork with her every where she goes. I wouldn't be surprised if she keeps it under her pillow. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Lisa phoned me one day and told me that Barbara or whatever-her-name-is woke up with a fork stuck in her head and she was taken to see..."
"Does this have anything to do with the big news?"
"Oh yeah, the big news. No, it has nothing to do with the big news. The big news is this: we're going to have a baby. Now I know what you're going to say. I've had this conversation in my head many times. I already know exactly what you're going to say, so it's up to you if you want to bother saying it. Of course, I've always imagined it on the phone, so it might be something new for me."
"And this is a Christmas present, is it?"
"It's an extraordinary gift, when you think about it."
"Is this on top of all the other gifts you're giving or did you start planning Christmas nine months ago?"
"I got other gifts as well. I got you this CD with a 'Parental Advisory' sticker on the front. I just thought it would be funny, giving you a CD with 'Parental Advisory' on it."
"What's funny about that?"
"I just thought... I don't know. I didn't really think about it."
"I always thought you were the sensible one."
"I am. The rest of them are off in cloud cuckoo land compared to me. You're lucky you're just going to get a baby from me, and from Lisa, which is an extraordinary gift, when you think about it. And the CD. You'll get nothing but hassle from Gary."
"What was going on in your head?"
"I didn't think it all the way through in my head. I just saw the words 'Parental Advisory' and I thought..."
"Not the CD, the baby."
"Oh right. Well now, perhaps it's time we had a little chat. A bit of parental advice, from son to father. Maybe this is what I was thinking of when I bought that CD. The thing you have to remember about affairs of the heart is that the head is automatically switched off. And so is the heart. It didn't matter what was going on in my head. It was... How would I say it in a way that wouldn't be banned on the radio?"
Gary and Emma returned to the kitchen. "Twenty-three," Gary said.
"Twenty-three what?" his father asked.
"That's how many baubles you can hang off the ... Do you want to know how many baubles you can hang off the clock in the hall?"
"I'll go and find out."
He left with Emma.
"Do you have any idea of the consequences this will have on your life? Even a vague idea?"
"Of course I do. I've been able to switch my head on since then. You're lucky that I really am the sensible one in the family. When Gary is my age and you're having this conversation with him, he'll be telling you that one of his wives is having a baby and another is having trouble with her crow breeding business and another is drifting over the Alps in a hot air balloon, and he's decided to do something about the one in the hot air balloon just to take his mind off the baby."
"You're really going to be a father?"
"That is big news."
"I know. At least I know it's big in theory. I keep telling myself that this is big. This is really big. But I just can't quite get my head around it. I suppose it hasn't sunk in yet... I think I'll have that cup of tea now."
While Owen and Ronan were drinking their tea at the table, Gary and Emma returned to the kitchen. Ronan said to his father, "Why don't you tell Gary and Emma. They won't believe me."
Owen turned to the kids and said, "We have some exciting news for ye. Your brother is going to be a father."
Gary didn't react. Emma tapped her chin with her index finger as she tried to get her head around this idea. Gary eventually broke the silence when he said, "Did ye know that you can hang twenty-nine baubles from the clock in the hall."
Emma nodded to confirm this.
"Twenty-nine?" Ronan said. "That doesn't sound like many."
"Not many!" Gary said. "Are you out of your mind? It's like... Have you ever seen twenty-nine baubles hanging from anything?"
"Yeah, from the Christmas tree."
"Well, yeah, from the Christmas tree, okay, but have you ever seen twenty-nine baubles hanging from a single branch of the Christmas tree? Incidentally, you can only hang eight baubles from a single branch of our Christmas tree. Jimmy says he got forty-eight on a single branch of theirs, but I don't think that's a real tree. They're probably using one of his younger brothers as a tree. They use one of his younger brothers for a lot of things. They might have hung forty-eight baubles from his brother's arm. Or else he was just lying. Because I told him we got fifty-two from a single branch of our tree."
"Now that I think about it," Ronan said, "twenty-nine does seem like a lot. I must have a look at that."
"You can't. The clock fell down. Incidentally, we need new baubles."
Emma nodded to confirm this.
The kids left to conduct more experiments with baubles, and a few minutes later, Louise finally made an appearance in the kitchen. "Gary and Emma told me ye had big news," she said. "Something about baubles."
"Ronan has an early Christmas present for you. You're going to be an aunt. Himself and Lisa are having a baby."
Louise started laughing. "What's so funny?" Owen said.
"The idea of Ronan being a father. To a child. He has the mental age of a five-year-old. It's like the blind leading the blind. He'll be pushing that baby around in a buggy and you'll have to push him around in a wheelbarrow. And Granddad will have to push you around in something else."
"Who's going to push Granddad around?" Ronan said.
"He doesn't need to be pushed around. Not yet anyway. He has a stair lift."
"A stair lift," Ronan said. "Right. Now let's think about that one for a second, shall we? I'm pushing the baby in its buggy. I'm in a wheelbarrow and Dad is pushing me. He's in something else. Let's say it's a shopping trolley. And then along comes Granddad to push the shopping trolley. He gets into his stair lift and away we go. Granddad pushes the baby down the stairs. That's what you're saying. Down will come baby, buggy and all, and then Daddy, wheelbarrow, Granddad and shopping trolley. And there's Granddad strapped to his stair lift, screaming, 'What have I done!' And you're saying I have the mind of a child?"
"What I'm saying is you're not even remotely qualified to be a father."
"There is no qualification to be a father. There's no certificate you get. If there was a course in college on being a father I'd have done that."
"And you'd have failed it because one of your friends would have dared you to eat out-of-date fish fingers the night before the exam and you'd have said, 'Yeah, that seems like a good idea.'"
"Those fish fingers were not out-of-date. They'd just been left out of the freezer for a few days. And in no way did they contribute to my failure of that exam."
"Can you imagine if you were a father to a child like Gary. About once every minute he'd be saying something like, 'Dad, I'm bored. Will you eat these biscuits I found in a bin?' And you'd say, 'Yeah, that seems like a good idea.'"
"They don't come out like Gary. It takes ten years of intensive training to create a creature like Gary. By the time my son or daughter is old enough to know how entertaining it is to watch someone eating something that's been in a bin, I'll have learnt how to say, 'Actually no, I don't think that's such a good idea. Why don't you eat it instead.'"
"If a child was born with the knowledge of a two-year-old it would be absolutely terrified when it looks around for the first time and sees that it's got you and Lisa for parents. It will be a blessing for this baby to be completely ignorant when it's born. With Lisa for a mother it will probably stay that way."
"You can say whatever you want about me, but watch what you say about Lisa. You're coming very close to crossing a line."
"So I can say that any child if Lisa will be an idiot and I wouldn't be crossing a line?"
"You were inferring it. You can infer it. Just don't say it."
"No," Owen said, "you can't do either. I know you don't like Lisa, but from now on, treat her with respect. She's a much more important part of our family now and we've got to do everything we can to make her feel welcome."
"Were you paying attention to that?" Louise said to Ronan. "That's good parenting, what Dad just said. You told me that it was okay to infer that your baby will be an idiot."
"So you agree with Dad?" Ronan said. "You'll be nice to Lisa?"
"Of course I agree with Dad. He's absolutely right. Things have changed. And no, of course I'm not going to be nice to Lisa."
"At the very least, ignore her," Owen said.
"That doesn't sound like good parental advice. Granddad wouldn't say it. He'd insist that I'd be nice to her."
"Your granddad is overly-optimistic about these things."
There was one other member of the family who had to be informed of the big news. Ronan wanted his father to tell Monica.
"She should hear it from you," Owen said.
"She'd kill me."
"She's a hundred-and-fifty miles away. She can't kill you on the phone."
"I wouldn't be so sure. Remember the cat that died?"
"Your mother had nothing to do with that cat."
"I know. She never touched that cat. She didn't go anywhere near that cat. But it died."
"Okay. I'll tell her. But you're going to have to face her sooner or later."
Ronan left the room when Owen made his nightly phone call to Donegal. After giving a heavily edited account of their attempt to put up the decorations he said, "There's something I have to tell you."
"What is it?"
"It's about... Are you sitting down?"
"I was until you said that. What's wrong?"
"Then why did you ask if I was sitting down?"
"Why did you assume it's bad news and not good news?"
"Is it good news?"
"It depends what way you look at it. Because in many ways it's a gift. An extraordinary gift. There's no doubt about it, it's an extraordinary gift. Of course, after getting it you might say, 'Yeah, that's undoubtedly an astonishing gift, but I'd have preferred if you gave me that CD of the foul-mouthed Christmas leprechaun and the reindeer who makes noises that sound a bit like..."
"I'm sitting down again because I'm just bored now."
"Ronan and Lisa are having a baby."
Owen could hear the chair falling over as Monica stood up suddenly. "We're going to be grandparents," he said. "I'm getting a CD as well, so I assume he's probably after getting something else for you."
"When did you find out about this."
"Ronan came home this evening and he told me. I tried to convince him to tell you himself."
"Why didn't he?"
"Because... y' know... I think you can probably guess why."
"He was afraid."
"Afraid? Is he there now?"
"Go and get him."
"He's still going to be afraid."
"My son is facing into the biggest event in his life and I can't talk to him on the phone?"
"I'll go and get him."
Ronan didn't put up any resistance when Owen informed him that he'd been summoned by his mother. He walked down the stairs with the air of a man who was resigned to his fate, unsure if he'd ever walk back up those steps.
Owen was surprised to see tears well up in Ronan's eyes shortly after he started talking to Monica on the phone. It had been a long time since she had made him cry. But Owen soon realised that those tears had nothing to do with fear. It was a release of emotion. The conversation lasted about two minutes, and Ronan was unable to contribute actual words, but the tear-soaked sounds he made were sufficient. After giving the phone back to his father he went upstairs to his bedroom A weight seemed to have been lifted from his shoulders.
"What did you say to him?" Owen asked Monica.
"I told him how much I loved him and that we'd give him and Lisa all the support they needed and how there was no way I'd settle for anything less than the best for them and their new baby."
"I thought you'd be angry with him."
"Of course I'm angry with him. I'm furious. How could I not be angry with him? He's an idiot."
"When he smashed those vegetables with a hammer you told him you'd shave his eye brows if he ever did it again. We all believed you. And then a few years later when he shaved his eye brows you sent him off to live with his grandmother for a week to clean out her attic."
"This is hardly the same thing. He needs our love and support now more than he's ever needed it before in his life. We should re-assure him and keep reminding him that that's exactly what he's going to get."
"Oh yeah. Why didn't I think of that?"
"Because I've always been there to think of these things for you."
"That's why I left those notes."
"There was no need to leave a note reminding me to make sure I was wearing trousers."
"Remember when you forgot."
"It's the sort of thing you might forget once, but you wouldn't do it twice."
Owen's parents, Frank and Margaret, called on Saturday afternoon to take Gary and Emma to the park. The church choir and their youth division were performing carols there. Ronan was out of the house when his grandparents arrived. Owen decided to wait and let Ronan tell them about his extraordinary gift, but Emma broke the news on the way to the park, or at least she tried to. When Margaret asked her if anything interesting had happened she said, "Ronan had big news last night. Something about baubles. Dad had big news as well. He's becoming a brother. But I don't know if I'm supposed to tell you about that yet."
"A brother? Like a monk?"
"A monk! That's it. That explains everything. Dad is becoming a monk."
"Are you sure about that?"
"I'm absolutely certain now. He's definitely becoming a monk. That's what he said when he told us he had big news."
When they arrived in the park the choir were getting ready on the bandstand. Mrs. O'Leary was doing her best to get the youth choir to pay attention to her, but there were too many distractions in the park. There are fewer more effective ways of distracting ten-year-olds than putting them in the vicinity of a twenty-five-foot-tall Christmas tree covered in flashing lights and paper bags from a take-away.
Frank and Margaret took the kids to see the tree when Mrs. O'Leary started issuing threats. They noticed something moving amongst the branches. Emma looked concerned. "What's that?" she said.
"It's a giant squirrel," Gary said.
Emma looked even more concerned.
"There's no such thing as giant squirrels," Margaret said.
"There is," Gary said. "I saw this thing on TV about them. It was on the news. They were warning people about giant squirrels hiding in Christmas trees after the trees are brought home. They've been attacking people. I think they're from Norway. Or the other one up there next to Norway. Normandy."
"How long have you been watching the news?" Frank said.
"I often watch the news," Gary said. "You pick up some very useful information on it. Knowing about giant squirrels could save your life."
Emma took a step back.
"I don't think this is a giant squirrel," Frank said.
Emma hid behind her grandfather when the movement amongst the branches suggested a creature much bigger than an average squirrel. They all held their breaths when something rolled out and landed on the ground in front of them. It wasn't a giant squirrel, but Gary was able to identify the creature. "It's only Jimmy," he said. "He's in my class in school. He isn't as dangerous as a giant squirrel. Did you see any of them in there, Jimmy?"
"I wasn't looking for giant squirrels," Jimmy said. "We have one of them at home. I was looking for my brother's Playstation."
"What would that be doing in there?" Margaret said.
"I put it there. He only just got it in the shop. I got it off him on the way home and I wanted to hide it, so I put it in the tree. He went mad. Way madder than I thought he'd get. It was brilliant! He's been looking in bins. When he started doing that, my father told me to give it back to him, but when I went into the tree to get it, it was gone."
"Why would you want to do something like that to your brother?" Margaret said.
"He put a tomato in my shoe."
"A giant squirrel has obviously taken it and hidden it somewhere else in the tree," Gary said. "A tree in a house might only have one giant squirrel, but a huge tree like this could be swarming with them. They could easily pick up a Playstation. Of course, they wouldn't know how to use it."
Jimmy looked worried. He dived back into the tree. The choir were ready to sing, so Frank, Margaret and the kids moved back towards the bandstand. Mrs. O'Leary had finally managed to grab the attention of the kids with a story about her teapot. They didn't listen to the story, but they were slightly scared of her after she acted out the teapot's movements.
The choir began their performance with 'Ding Dong Merrily on High'. It was a rousing rendition, though the kids did seem surprisingly subdued as they took the applause of the crowd. After singing another few carols they regained their spirits. In the middle of 'Silent Night', some of them started nudging each other, and pointing at the tree. At the end of the carol no one applauded because the entire crowd were looking at the tree. A head emerged from the branches near the star at the top. Unfortunately for Jimmy, much more than his head emerged. He fell out of the tree, but on his way down he grabbed hold of lights and decorations to slow his descent. He landed safely on the ground, and then a pile of lights and decorations landed on him. A head emerged from the pile. Jimmy seemed perfectly content there as he nodded to acknowledge the ovation of the crowd, but it didn't take him long to disentangle himself after he saw his brother approaching. He ran away. His brother let Jimmy go because he saw the Playstation amongst the crushed decorations and broken lights at the bottom of the tree. He couldn't help smiling. This looked just like Christmas morning in their house last year.
The choir started singing again. Mrs. O'Leary failed to regain the attention of the kids, no matter how often she imitated her teapot. The choir failed to regain the attention of the crowd because the teapot act was too distracting.
When the performance came to an end, Frank and Margaret took Gary and Emma to a shopping mall. They didn't go into many shops. They spent most of their time looking at the Christmas displays in the windows, and when it started to get dark outside they went home.
Frank and Margaret stayed for dinner. Owen's mashed potatoes were improving every day, and he'd finally mastered peas. After dinner they all went to the living room. Even Louise joined them. The television was on, but no one was paying much attention to the Christmas film they'd seen before. They hadn't paid much attention to it the first time around either. Gary put the baubles on the tree this time, while Frank and Margaret untangled the lights. Emma covered herself in tinsel. Ronan stood near the fireplace. He seemed preoccupied, but he had a good reason to be.
Shortly after eight o' clock, the doorbell rang. As Owen was leaving the room to answer it, Ronan said, "There's something I meant to tell you. I forgot."
When Owen opened the door and saw Lisa standing in the porch with a suitcase in her hand he guessed that this is what his son had meant to tell him. Ronan arrived at the door. After kissing his girlfriend, he picked up her suitcase and took it inside to the kitchen.
Owen made some tea for himself, Ronan and Lisa, and they sat down at the kitchen table.
"My parents threw me out," Lisa said. "The way my mother was talking, it seemed as if she thought I only got pregnant to embarrass her. I told her that this had nothing whatsoever to do with my mission to embarrass her, and I thought my father would back me up, but he said he'd known that this would happen ever since I first brought Ronan home. That's why he spilled the soup on your lap, Ronan: because he knew that you'd get me pregnant. Or at least that's what he's saying now."
"Why did he think I'd get you pregnant?"
"He's probably just saying that now, but that's even worse. He should have been backing me up, and supporting me. Supporting both of us. I told him that when I first met you I knew you'd get me pregnant too. I thought we'd be married when we'd be having our first baby, and we'd be living in a loft, from where we'd be running our own business selling our own works of art, like those screws I put into the glass. I sold that, and not to a carpenter. I told my mother and my father that you were the greatest man I'd ever met in my life and I couldn't be any happier about having your baby and I couldn't spend another night under their roof while they were there, and they wouldn't leave, so here I am. From now on I'll only ever refer to them as Bob and Gloria. Their real names are Sean and Ruth, but I started calling them Bob and Gloria a few years ago to embarrass them."
"Is it okay if Lisa stays here for a while?" Ronan said.
"Of course," Owen said. "Stay for as long as you want."
"Thanks," Lisa said. "I wish my parents were as understanding as you are. Is it okay if I call you Kenny?"
"Whatever you want."
"Thank you, Kenny."
"His name is Owen," Ronan said.
"Sorry!" Lisa said. "I thought it was Kenny. I'm so sorry."
"Don't worry about it. Just call me Owen. Or whatever you want."
"Owen. I want to call you Owen."
"Make yourself at home here."
"I'll do my bit around the house. Leave Sunday lunch to me. You deserve a break, so just relax tomorrow."
"That's a relief," Owen said. "I thought I'd be facing a mutiny tomorrow if I gave them more mashed potatoes and peas."
Ronan took Lisa to the living room. Owen stayed behind to wash the mugs. Before he'd finished drying them, Louise was in the kitchen to complain about their guest.
"She won't be here on Christmas Day as well, will she?" Louise said to her father.
"I don't know. It depends how long it takes to patch things up with her parents."
"Oh God! Of course she'll be here. This is Christmas Day for her family. They've finally got rid of her. Of course they're not going to take her back. They're drinking champagne now, and they've just had their Christmas dinner. Can you imagine if you spent every Christmas with her, and then one year Santa unexpectedly brings you the greatest gift: a Christmas without her. And it's a gift that could be for life, not just for Christmas. This baby will only know one set of grandparents."
"It's not going to be for life. But it might last for Christmas, so please, please don't make this any more stressful than it already is."
"I'll make it considerably less stressful. I'm moving out. There's no way I'm living with her."
"Where are you going to live? With Lisa's parents? A sort of a daughter swap?"
"If Mam ends up spending Christmas in Donegal, then I'll be there as well."
"I thought you'd be glad of the chance to live with Lisa, just to show her how much you despise living with her."
The slight pause before she rejected this idea suggested that she found the idea appealing. She seemed to be deep in thought when she went up to her room. The next visitor to the kitchen was Emma. She said to her father: "Dad, why are you becoming a monk?"
"Am I becoming a monk?"
"I suppose I should know why I'm becoming one so."
"Let's say it's because I need the silence."
"You won't be going away to live in a castle, will you?"
"No. They said I could work from home."
"Will you be wearing a dress?"
"Monks don't wear dresses. They wear... I can't remember what the name for a monk's clothes is."
"They said I didn't have to wear a dress if I didn't want to."
"Do you want to?"
"How long will you be a monk for?"
"Just until your mother gets back."
"Oh right. And then she can wear the dress."
"If she wants to. She might want to wear the trousers instead."
"Can I wear my fairy costume on Christmas Day?"
"You can wear anything you want."
"Can I wear a poodle wig?"
Emma and her father were on their way back to the living room as Louise was coming down the stairs.
"I've decided to make things less stressful by staying," Louise said.
"I thought you were going to make things less stressful by leaving."
"Everything I do makes things less stressful. I'm the only one here who has the slightest bit of sense. You can never be stressed by sense. The only sane person in the asylum will be driven mad. For the sake of my own sanity I should go to Donegal, but no, you need me here."
"I do. Thanks."
Later that evening, Owen phoned Monica to tell her about their guest. She wasn't surprised. "Her parents never liked Ronan," she said. "He's not good enough for them. He's far too good for them really, but they look down on him. I hope you're making her feel at home."
"Of course I am. I told her she could call me Kenny. And she's making dinner tomorrow."
"She's what! She's a young pregnant woman who's just been rejected by her parents and she's a guest in the house, and you get her to make dinner?"
"She wants to make dinner. You'll never feel more at home in a house than when you're cooking in the kitchen. It's not as if I could stop her from making dinner and then subject her to my mashed potatoes and peas. That would be no way to treat a dog, let alone a young pregnant woman. Not that I'd eat a meal prepared by a dog."
"Louise told me about the mashed potatoes and peas. I suppose Lisa will be able to relax more if she's cooking. Is she sleeping with Ronan?"
"I assume she is, but no one has mentioned it yet. I assume we all assume the same thing. I'll let Ronan see after all that."
"That's certainly no way to treat a guest. Get the good linen out of the hot press."
"Sorry. It was stupid of me to assume you know where the good linen is in the hot press. Or what the good linen is. You do know where the hot press is, don't you? I can give you directions."
"Do you have any idea how embarrassing it would be for all of us if I dressed the bed for them?"
"Well then just have a quiet chat with Ronan and let him do it. He really will need directions to the hot press."
"Louise is determined to make this as difficult as possible. She said she wanted to stay with you in Donegal, but I reminded her of how much fun she'd have here. Any sign of an end to your stay in Donegal?"
"I'd love to be enjoying all of the fun back home, but Eileen obviously still needs my help, even though she insists she can manage without me. She feels terrible about keeping me here."
"I don't think she really feels as bad as she says. About keeping you there."
"What are you implying?"
"Nothing. I just think she's delighted to have the help."
"I know you think she's pretending to be worse than she is just to keep me here, but she really can't cope on her own. Do you think I'd be away from my family at this time if year unless it was absolutely essential?"
"There are good reasons for being away from the family at this time of year."
"At any time of year your family will make you want to live in a shack far away from civilisation. Gary could do that on his own. But they're family. Do you have any idea how much I want to be at home, being driven mad by Gary?"
"What about being driven mad by me?"
"I can be driven mad by you from here in Donegal."
"Maybe we should switch places. You should come home and I should go to Donegal, driving you mad from there. And driving Eileen mad. Why don't you suggest that to Eileen, just to see how she reacts."
"You know how she'd react."
"I can imagine. But I'd find it much easier to imagine it if you actually did it and then told me about it. Or take a photo."
"Y' see? I don't need to be near you to be driven mad. I'm going to make some tea for Eileen now. And something stronger for myself."
Owen went to the living room and told Ronan that they had a little job to do. He led his son upstairs to the hot press, where they started looking for the good linen.
"Your mother is making me do this," Owen said. "I take no pleasure in subjecting you to this embarrassment. It's embarrassing for me as well. We can talk about football, and try to forget about what we're doing."
"I don't find it embarrassing at all. Although I wouldn't mind talking about football to take my mind off things."
"I didn't think you needed to take your mind off things. You don't seem all that stressed about the baby."
"Most of the time I don't because I keep my mind elsewhere. Sometimes when I think about being a father I'm terrified. Not every time I think about it. Somethings I think everything is going to be grand, but then an hour later I'll be terrified. I tell myself, 'Just relax, it'll all be grand.' But I'll still feel terrified. I'll tell myself that in a few minutes I might not feel afraid at all. I might feel like dancing in the streets. But that doesn't work either. And then when I do feel like dancing in the streets I tell myself, 'I'm completely done with being terrified now. I've sorted the whole thing out. It'll all be grand.' And then an hour later I'll be terrified again."
"That sounds familiar. I've been there. Everything apart from dancing in the streets. But everything really will be grand. You can always be certain that your family will support you. Remember that when you're terrified."
"Thanks. Can we talk about football now?"
"What do you make of Liverpool?"
"Talking about Liverpool would just be depressing. Can we talk about something else?"
"Ah, good old Arsenal. Always reliable as a topic of conversation when you want to take your mind off things. Jeremy threw his shoes at the television the last time we were watching Arsenal play. That's why we got thrown out of the pub. He had to bang on the door for a while before they threw his shoes out, but he only found one of them, and he had to pick it out of something you wouldn't put your foot into."
Owen got up at nine o' clock on Sunday morning. Gary and Emma would often be up before him on Saturday and Sunday mornings. He'd normally find them in the living room, watching TV and happily spilling milk from their cereal bowls, so he was surprised to find them sitting at the kitchen table. They were eating the pancakes Lisa had made for them. She had bread in the oven.
"You're just in time for a pancake," she said to Owen. "I bought loads of maple syrup in the shop this morning, so use as much as you want."
"I don't think I've ever had maple syrup before."
"The museli is something I put together myself, so it's up to you if you want to take your chances with that. You could stick with cornflakes, or try the porridge. I got a big jar of honey just for the porridge."
"I liked the porridge," Emma said.
"So did I," Gary said. "Porridge is a hundred times better with a little bit of honey."
"You got them eating porridge?" Owen said.
"Porridge and honey," Lisa said. "Or maybe it was honey with a little bit of porridge."
"I think I'll try the museli," Owen said.
"I'll get you some. And I won't be offended if you smother it in honey."
Louise looked dazed with she arrived in the kitchen and saw everyone sitting at the table.
"Good morning," Lisa said to her. "What type of cereal would you like?"
"You're asking me what type of cereal I want?"
"You do know that I live here, don't you?"
"I live here."
"I'm not sure I understand."
"You'd probably have to live here."
"Would you like a pancake?"
"I live here."
Gary said, "I think I've figured out this breakfast thing. You start with the honey or the maple syrup and then you choose a bit of food to go with it."
"That's good advice," Owen said to Louise. "Just focus on the choice between maple syrup and honey."
"Or golden syrup," Emma said.
"Yeah, or golden syrup," Owen said, "and then just add whatever catches your eye."
"This is the best breakfast I've ever had in my life," Gary said.
"I second that," Owen said. "And I've had a lot more breakfasts than Gary."
Emma recommended the golden syrup with a crumpet on top. Ronan added his opinion but it was impossible to make out what he was saying through a mouthful of black puddings. Louise got a bowl of cornflakes and took it to the living room.
Lisa started work on dinner before she'd finished making the last pancake for Ronan. Owen offered to help, but she insisted that he relax and leave everything to her. He took the Sunday papers to the dining room, where he could read them in peace. He wondered what Monica would say about letting their guest do all the work. He could try to justify it by saying that if he interfered, people would end up picking peas and scraping mashed potatoes out of the magnificent meal prepared by Lisa. Even if he just stood near the cooker there was a good chance he'd end up ruining her work. He wondered if her incessant cooking was a sign that she was uncomfortable in the house. It couldn't be an easy situation for her. Perhaps he should have a word with her, he thought. Make her feel at home.
Guilt eventually made him abandon the papers and go to the kitchen to insist that he help, so she let him set the table in the dining room.
When she served the main course of poached salmon he was glad he hadn't interfered with the cooking process in any way. Anything he could have done would have diminished the meal. He felt that he should just sit there and admire the food, but he remembered that food was meant to be eaten. Everyone else at the table had already thought of this; everyone apart from Louise. When she finally came down from her room she chose to look at the food rather than eat it. After inspecting it for a few minutes she said, "Will this thing kill me?"
"It's not a 'thing'," Lisa said. "It's a creation."
"Will this creation kill me?"
"Like all acts of creation, it will nourish you, spiritually and physically."
"I only ask because when I first saw it I thought of death."
"Do you think about death a lot? Because if you think about death a lot, then when you look at a lot of things your first thought will be of death."
"No, I hardly ever think about death, but when you put the plate in front of me I got an overwhelming sense of decay and decomposition. I don't think I can eat any of this. I can't get the image of maggots out of my mind."
"I don't care what you do with it, but don't ruin it for everyone else. I put a lot of work into this."
"And it shows," Owen said. "It looks fantastic and it tastes even better. It proves I was right to make sure I didn't put any work at all into this. If I'd set foot in the kitchen, people would be looking at peas now. They might not get a sense of decay and decomposition, but they'd have an overwhelming sense of disappointment."
Louise tried hard to look as if she wasn't enjoying the meal, even as she finished it. The struggle became too much when Lisa unveiled dessert: apple fudge cake. Louise didn't have anything nasty to say, so she didn't say anything at all.
Owen insisted on washing the dishes, despite Lisa's protestations. She ended up helping him anyway when she saw that no one else had volunteered to help. When they were alone together in the kitchen he thought it would be a good time to make her feel more comfortable. "I want you to feel completely at home," he said. "No matter what happens, you'll always have a home here from now on. So just relax. Be yourself."
"I am being myself," she said. She sounded offended. "Just who exactly do you think I'm being? Homer Simpson?"
"No, I didn't mean it in a bad way. I meant you don't have to do anything around the house. Don't feel that you're a burden."
"Laurence of Arabia?"
"If you want to cook, that's fine. But if you don't want to do anything, that's equally as fine. I didn't mean to cause offence."
"I'm sorry. I have a habit of saying the wrong thing. In my head it sounds okay, but... I'm very sorry."
Lisa stormed out of the kitchen as Louise slipped quietly in. She had come downstairs when she heard Lisa's raised voice. She couldn't make out the words, but she knew it would be entertaining to hear her adversary arguing with someone else. So she was disappointed to find that the show was coming to an end just as she was arriving for the performance. To make matters worse, the action began again upstairs and Louise couldn't go up to enjoy it because her father said it would be wrong to pry into an argument between Lisa and Ronan. Louise had to settle for a back-row seat at the bottom of the stairs. Owen joined her there to tell her to stop prying, and after he had told her he stayed to pry with her. They heard Louise shouting something about trousers. They couldn't make out Ronan's response, but it sounded sarcastic. The voices from upstairs got louder, and then Owen and Louise heard the sound of footsteps pounding the floorboards, as if someone was moving around the room in a hurry.
A few minutes later Lisa was moving down the stairs in a hurry, with her suitcase in her hand. Owen and Louise pretended to be inspecting Gary's latest act of vandalism on a painting in the hall.
"There will be no art business," Lisa said to Owen. "There will be no wedding on a barge on a canal. We will never live together in a loft. We will never live together again. One night living 'together' has convinced me that I was wrong to think I'd spend the rest of my life with Ronan. That's not to say that my parents were right. Obviously I can't go back to them. I'll live on the streets. I've always wanted to live on the streets at this time of year. It's cold, but the Christmas decorations will provide all the warmth I need. Spiritual warmth. That's what I crave. Nourishment for the soul, rather than for the body. All the meals I make are for the soul first and foremost. I just hope my unborn baby feels the same way."
The living room door opened and Margaret stepped into the hall. She had been listening at the door with Frank. "I think I have a better plan," she said to Lisa. "Why don't you stay with us for a while. You'd be welcome to stay for as long as you want."
"I suppose I do have to consider the views of my unborn baby. Perhaps he or she will take after Ronan rather than me. This tenant of my body might be an enemy of my soul. To stop it from waging constant war with my soul I'll need to keep it happy, to provide my body with all the material comforts I despise. Warmth and plenty of sweet food. Cake. Tonnes of cake. Breakfast cereal coated in butterscotch."
"Why don't you wait here while myself and Frank go home to get the spare room ready."
Owen walked to the front door with his parents. When Lisa was out of earshot, Margaret said to Owen, "There's no way she's staying with us. Phone Monica and get her to sort out this nonsense with herself and Ronan."
Owen was going to ask his mother why she didn't trust him to sort it out. Why was someone so many miles away better placed to deal with the situation? He didn't ask that question because at the back of his mind he knew the answer. He was out of his depth, and it felt good to be out of his depth. He felt an inner glow when he accepted that he needed his wife. Their marriage had seemed so empty when she was there, but the void left by her absence showed him just how much they had.
For Owen, the sound of his wife's voice on the phone felt warmer than a hot whiskey by the fireside on a snowy Christmas Eve, even when she was saying, "Put that eejit on the phone."
He wondered which one of them was 'that eejit'. After deciding that it was probably Ronan, he went upstairs to find his son.
He listened to Ronan talking on the phone. There wasn't much to hear. Ronan was struggling to get a word in. He could manage the occasional word, but that's where his sentences ended. Owen went out for a walk when he got bored of listening to his son saying 'but'.
He went to the park, where most of the broken lights had been replaced on the Christmas tree, but the branches still looked bare. This did nothing to diminish Owen's feeling that something was missing. He wasn't looking forward to a Christmas without Monica. Even the thought of going home to a house without her was depressing. If she was there she'd either ignore him or get him to do some unpleasant job involving something that was refusing to be moved from the compost bin, but she was the heart of their home. He'd never be happy with a life of peace and quiet. She provided him with a sense of security, a certainty that he'd never have to face the void if he was with her.
The empty kitchen made him even more depressed. Through the window he watched the football match in the back garden. Ronan and Gary were up against Lisa and Emma. Ronan and Lisa were only interested in fouling each other, simply because they couldn't keep their hands off each other. Gary couldn't figure out why Lisa couldn't stop laughing every time she was fouled. He'd have to educate her about the basic facts of the game, he thought.
Owen phoned his mother to tell her all was well. After providing a brief commentary on the football match he said, "Is there any chance you and Dad could come over here and look after the kids for a while?"
"We'd love to."
"When I say 'a while' I mean a few days."
"Ah, I see. I was wondering if you had enough sense in your head to figure out that you'd do well to go to Donegal for 'a while'."
"How did you know I was going to Donegal? I could be going to Vegas to blow all our savings. There have been times in the past few weeks when I've been tempted to go to Vegas."
"But you're going to Donegal, aren't you?"
"I'm going to Donegal."
Monica was shocked to see her visitor when she opened the front door of Eileen's house that night. When the shock began to fade, suspicion took over. "It's bad news, isn't it?" she said. "That's why you're here."
"There's no bad news. Unless you regard my arrival in Donegal as bad news."
"You've come here to make sure I'm sitting down when you break the bad news. Let me guess. You lost a fortune on a bet and you sold my grandmother's silver to pay for it."
"How likely is that? Any time I've thought about selling the silver I've come up with an escape plan to get away from you. Why would I come here to Donegal?"
"You offended Lisa and neither she nor Ronan will ever speak to anyone in the family again."
"You've burnt the house down, haven't you? You've made a mess of the Christmas lights and burnt the house down. And you've come here to break the news to me gently. Well that's your first mistake, because at this very moment I can see five objects within my reach that I could use as weapons."
"The house and all the decorations are still intact. Well, not all the decorations. Gary has been conducting experiments with baubles."
"'Conducting experiments'? Isn't that a euphemism for an explosion. He's blown the kitchen to kingdom come, hasn't he? You've come here to break the news gently. Any minute now you'll ask me if I'm sitting down."
"The kitchen is fine. Everything is fine. I've come here because I had to see you."
"You've crashed the car. Into a church."
Every time she made one of these suggestions, Eileen would smile and nod, as if burning down the house would be typical of him. When Monica suggested that he'd murdered someone and he was on the run, he knew she was joking, and she'd accepted that he really had come to see her. Eileen smiled and nodded.
On the following morning he had bad news for Eileen: he told her he could stay a few days. She looked shocked at first, but she soon regained her senses. She miraculously regained her health again as well. She stood up, and said she felt up to making a cup of tea in the kitchen. She was able to walk to the supermarket and carry the shopping bags home up a steep hill. This was enough to convince Monica that her services as a nurse were no longer required, and she could go home. Owen wanted to stay in Donegal for a few days, to spend some time with his wife before heading back to the mad house for Christmas. But Eileen got out a skipping rope to prove that she no longer needed a nurse, and Monica was desperate to return to the mad house.
On the drive home, Owen spoke about space travel, eggs and the scent of ghosts, and she never suggested that he was drinking or on drugs. She was interested in what he had to say. He even made her laugh. It was the first time in years that he'd made her laugh without injuring himself.
Santa could never have given Gary and Emma a Christmas surprise as good as their mother's return. Louise gave up trying to hide the tear in her eye. Ronan and Lisa stopped fouling each other for a while to welcome Monica home. For hours after her return the kitchen was full of life again. Only Owen remained silent. He just sat there and appreciated the way the kitchen was transformed by all the excited voices. The excitement eventually began to fade, and after a brief silence, Owen was going to propose a toast to his wife. But before he had a chance to raise his mug of tea, Gary said to his mother, "If you're wondering what happened to the living room, it was a giant squirrel."