by P. Kearney Byrne
When Janet is dying, she asks for Eddie. He takes the call in his office. He’s been eating his lunch at his desk; ham and coleslaw sandwiches with a couple of apples from the tree in the back garden. It’s that time of year when people get their accounts in, and he’s been doing eighteen-hour days for the previous three weeks. He’s been up since four a.m..
“No,” he says to Tony, swallowing a mouthful of sandwich. “You were right to call me. I’ll fly over this evening.”
He wraps up his half-eaten lunch and phones his wife. She’s doing day shifts at the hospital but she nips home at lunchtime so she can eat with Pattie, their youngest daughter.
“I’ll get Pattie to book you a flight with Ryanair,” Nuala says. “The rest of us can come over tomorrow morning.” He’s about to put the phone down when he hears his wife saying something else. “Pattie wants to go with you tonight. She wants to see her Auntie Janet. Is that OK?”
Eddie puts away the files he’s been working on and gets his coat. It’s a mild autumn day so he sets out to walk the three miles from his office in Kennington to his house in Clapham Common. He’s pleased that Pattie wants to come with him. She’s just turned sixteen, and he knows that the days of her wanting to spend time with her father will soon be over. Also she’s his favourite. And she’s the one that he and Nuala fret over. The other two girls are fine, great. Both at college and with their heads screwed on. But Pattie… Pattie is a softie. That’s what Nuala says. Her two older sisters are straightforward and outgoing. Pattie’s always been complicated. Shy. And pudgy. But Nuala says ‘pudgy’ has recently become “seriously overweight.” And it’s true. Even Eddie can see that she’s become stout, her clothes all stretched and tight and uncomfortable looking. Nuala says that Pattie overeats when she’s upset. That makes Eddie worry. Why is she so upset all the time? What’s the problem? Her sisters weren’t always so upset. No, Nuala tells him, but Pattie’s the softie in this family. She’s more easily upset, and when she’s upset, she eats.
On the flight to Dublin, Pattie sits by the window and Eddie has to help her extend the seatbelt to make it go across her thighs. He knows, that as soon as he dozes off, she’ll take her snacks and chocolate bars from her bag and eat them, bit by tiny bit, mouse-like, facing the window, trying to not make even a teeny sound. He wishes he could tell her that it’s all right, that she should enjoy her chocolate and not worry if she’s a bit fat. But he knows that would embarrass her. So, as soon as the plane takes off, he shuts his eyes. A few seconds later, he hears the rustle of paper as Pattie opens her first bar.
Unlike Eddie, Nuala believes in challenging Pattie’s eating. When she finds Snickers wrappers under Pattie’s bed, or empty Minstrels packets in her school bag, she points it out. Pattie, I found all these sweet wrappers under your bed. Pattie, did you buy chocolate on the way home from school? When she’s caught out, Pattie’s dark hair swings down across her face. She bites her fingernails and her bottom lip trembles.
Nuala says they can’t just ignore Pattie’s weight problem and hope it’ll magically go away, and Eddie knows she might have a point. But he feels for Pattie, a tender, bruising kind of ache. Then again, his feelings for Pattie have always been a bit painful. It’s because of the ways that she gets really close to him. That kind of closeness? It’s a thing that doesn’t happen often for Eddie, not even with Nuala.
Like that time on the trip to Australia when he was knocked unconscious in the sea by a surfer on Bondi Beach. He’d had to be rescued by the lifeguards, dragged ashore, emptied of sand and seawater and given mouth to mouth. When he came to on the beach, the first thing he saw was Pattie’s face, in shadow against that wide blue sky. She was bending over him and he heard her small voice – she was only seven or eight – calm and sure. “We’re all alive, Daddy,” she said, patting his chest with her small, warm hand. “Don’t worry Daddy, we’re all alive.”
Later, Eddie spoke to Nuala about what Pattie had said, but she didn’t seem to understand his point.
“Don’t you think it’s at least odd,” he’d asked her, “ that she said ‘we’re all alive, Daddy,’’ not ‘you’re alive’?” But Nuala didn’t see anything strange in that. She’d put it down to a child’s clumsy use of pro-nouns.
Privately, Eddie thought this was a bit unimaginative of Nuala. He’d always valued his wife’s pragmatism, but he thought this was applying it in a wrong way.
On the other hand, he hadn’t told Nuala the whole story.
When he was out there in the ocean and saw the yellow surfboard hurtling towards him, when he realised – with the surging waters snagging and snatching at him – that he hadn’t a hope, the truth was that he could only think about himself. Not that his wife would be widowed, his children left fatherless. No. It was all about him. Even though he was the one in danger of dying, all he could think about was that he’d lose them! Then the surfboard cracked him on the head and he blacked out.
When he heard Pattie’s words, “Don’t worry, Daddy, we’re all alive,” it was exactly what he’d needed to hear; he hadn’t lost his family. He still believes that, in her child’s way, Pattie had understood what he’d been through and what his worst fears were. And he hadn’t had to explain it to her! That was the important part, because Eddie has known for a long, long time that the most important things in life can never be put into words.
The plane lands with a bump and Eddie jolts awake; he thinks he’s fallen asleep at the wheel of the family car and they’ve crashed…
“It’s OK, Daddy,” Pattie says. She puts her hand on his arm. “It’s just the plane. We’re in Dublin.”
They take a taxi from the airport to St. Vincent’s Hospital. It’s after seven when they get there. On the oncology ward, they’ve put Janet in a private room. Eddie looks through the window and sees her husband, Tony, and their two sons shadowing the bed. He sighs, then knocks softly at the door. Tony comes out and shakes his hand. He seems to want to hug him, but Eddie draws back, and Tony hugs Pattie instead.
“She’s been asking for you all day, Eddie,” he says, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “’Where’s Eddie? Get Eddie for me.’’’
“Well, here I am,” Eddie says. He’s no good at small talk, and already he’s thinking about how quickly they can get away from the hospital and get settled in the hotel in Leopardstown. Pattie’s booked adjoining rooms for them and with a bit of luck – he’s hungry now – the restaurant will still be open. But if it isn’t, they can get a takeaway.
Tony leads them into Janet’s room and Eddie gets a shock when he sees his sister’s hollow face and scanty hair. Her eyes are closed – Janet’s eyes were always her best feature – but he nods to himself when he sees that her eyebrows are still the perfect, snooty, half-circles they’ve always been. Her sons move out of the way, and Eddie sits on the chair alongside the bed.
“Eddie?” Janet says. Her eyes don’t open, but her hand moves along the coverlet towards Eddie’s, and it settles over his, light as a handkerchief, but warm too, for someone so ill. Pattie goes around the other side of the bed and leans in.
“I’m here with Daddy, Auntie Jan,” she says. “It’s Pattie.” Janet gives a slow smile, still without opening her eyes or moving her head. Her lips are the same drab colour as her skin.
“You’re a love,” she says. Pattie’s eyes fill up and she roots in her pocket for a tissue. The eldest son, Sean, hands her a wad from the box on the locker and she dabs soundlessly at her tears.
Tony bends down and whispers into Eddie’s ear that they’ll give him some time alone with Janet. Eddie doesn’t think that’s necessary. As far as he’s concerned, Janet’s on the way out, and really, it’s Tony and her sons that matter to her now, not him and Pattie. But he just nods as Tony and the boys leave the room.
Pattie pulls up another chair on the opposite side of the bed. They sit there for a while, and Eddie starts drifting. Sleep deprivation is giving him mild hallucinations as he looks around the small hospital room. The pale yellow curtains seem an inch or so short for the windows, and he’s trying to work out who let that happen? And why? It’s cruel, like putting a badly finished skirt on a child… Then the television starts to bother him, stuck on a metal arm high up in the corner. Such an ugly thing that, even if you are dying. He begins believing that it’s a monitor in disguise, and that someone, a professor perhaps, or some students, are observing and recording his reactions to Janet dying…
Janet still has his hand, and gradually he notices an increasing pressure on it. He looks down – so does Pattie – and sees a scrawl of sinews standing out on the part of Janet’s arm that’s visible under the sleeve of her nightie. She’s gripping so hard, Eddie wonders if she’s in pain? He’s about to ask Pattie to get a nurse, when Janet’s eyes open wide and fasten onto him.
“Eddie!” she says, and her huge eyes stare right into his…. Eddie blinks hard to wake himself up and he concentrates on her.
“I’m right here, Janet,” he says. He tries to sound blasé, but she looks pretty alarming, and her grip is unmerciful. He’s afraid she’s going to die right there, in front of Pattie. But then she says his name again, “Eddie!” Her voice sounds thirsty, as if she’s in a desert, and her eyes are compelling. He hasn’t been able to look away from her and now he has no choice but to lean towards her.
“Eddie!” He leans further in and when he’s right up close to her, so close he can feel her torrid breath on his face, Janet’s mouth sizzles at him; “You little shit!” it hisses. “You little shit!”
Then the door opens and Tony and the boys come in, Janet’s eyes close, her hand unclamps, and a small thin smile plays about her lips.
Eddie isn’t sure what’s happened, but he can’t look at Pattie.
In Ranelagh, Dublin, that house where they were brought up; the long narrow hallway, running straight down to that papery, tacked-on, kitchen out the back, with its smell of cigarette smoke, stewed tea, and frying. It’s where his mother always sat, at the table with the blue oilcloth, the kitchen door wide open so that she could see the front door with its frosted glass panels. She’d freeze, of course, if the doorbell rang, glaring at him and Janet, her hand stretched out at them, the reddened palm up at their faces. Shhhhhh!! All three of them then, like statues. Eddie and Janet terrified to move until the caller had rung the bell a few more times and left.
His mother, at that table; her cup of tea, her elbows either side of the daily paper. The ashtray, the cigarette in her fingers; that curl of smoke, drifting, drifting… Smoking, reading, drinking tea at that table. Can he remember her any other way? Not really.
And his father, at home in the evening, sitting at the other end of the table, but insisting the kitchen door was shut. “There’s a draught from that front door,” he’d say. “I can feel that draft, shut that door.” He had a chilly nature, that’s what Eddie’s mother said about him. “Your father has a chilly disposition.”
Every evening, at teatime, in the kitchen, their four plates and cups and cutlery crowded onto that small table. Janet and him facing the wall, his parents at either end, their ashtrays beside them. All four of them shut up in that tiny room for hours every evening. And no good reason for it ever given.
The sucking noise his father made smoking his pipe; his ear low to the radio, his thin fingers twiddling the knobs; telling him and Janet to Shhhhh! For God’s sake! Be quiet, can’t you? His mother telling them to go and sit on those wooden boxes when they’d finished their tea. Orange crates, were they? Him and Janet pretending to read their schoolbooks, but slyly kicking each other. What are you two playing at? Stop that fidgeting! Shhhhhh! Janet making faces at him, trying to crush his toes with her heel without moving on her orange crate. Eddie trying to get his other foot in position so he can kick her in the shin to make her stop. What’s the matter with you two? For God’s sake, can’t we get a bit of peace in this house? No! You can not go out and play. You’ve been out all day. Now sit there and be quiet!
And then, inexplicably, after the cantankerous, ritual refusals of the previous two hours, suddenly they’re set free. OK, yes, you can go to your rooms. But do your homework, do you hear me? You go straight up to your bedrooms and do your homework and no messing around up there.
Janet and him closing the kitchen door behind them. But not going to their bedrooms. Of course not. No. Sneaking up to the Good Room. Up along that narrow hallway, up to the front of the house. In there, into that museum; cold, even in summer. It must have been north facing. Smelling of… damp, probably? And the endless clutter; the mantle piece, those glass cabinets, the coffee tables, all clotted with those little ornaments. Little breakable things; china and glass and Delft. All breakable and precarious and useless. And you are absolutely not allowed into the Good Room.
Janet and him at the door to the Good Room, already pushing and shoving at each other, panting and squirming. Trying to sneak open the door to the Good Room while struggling against each other. And inside? Fighting. What else!
But it wasn’t just fighting, was it? Or it spilled over, usually. Spilled over so that Janet got him on the floor, bent his arm up behind his back, straining the muscles in his shoulder, his forearm, burning his face on the carpet. She was bigger, of course, three years older and much taller.
Janet locking hard onto him, her legs clamped around him, grinding her hips against him, grunting, and panting, her lower teeth exposed, her eyes shut. The ragged whispering; Submit! Submit!
Sometimes – once or twice – Eddie got the upper hand. Got her on her face on the carpet; Eddie with his sharp boys knees on her spine or between her thin shoulder blades, or with his legs locked around her head, crushing himself into her, rubbing himself on her. Submit! Submit!
Through all that pressing and pulling, neither of them ever – not once! – knocking against the spindly legs of the coffee tables, or the treacherous, rattling, glass fronts of the cabinets. Never making a sound. Their mutual, frenzied, silence; the rapid breathing and the harsh, whispered, Submit!
Then, perhaps later on – a few times at least? – Janet tying him up. With what? Belts from his mother’s dresses, from his father’s trousers maybe? Eddie strapped into the foetal position on the floor, helpless, the belts cutting into him. The rage! And Janet astride his shoulder, his side, his thigh, moving on him, riding into him, and leaning down and hissing at him. That was when it was. The hissing at him. You little shit. You little shit!
What did it mean? Where could she have heard that? More than anything, he wanted to do that to her, to say that to her. He imagined it, in bed at night, getting her on the floor; her helplessness; her rage. Hissing into her ear. Every night, the dry, stabbing, thrill thinking of it, of him saying that to her; No, you little shit! You little shit!
He never got his chance. She was suddenly gone. Into secondary school. Or puberty? Janet ignoring him, as if he didn’t exist. No more fights. No more pushing or writhing or squirming.
Of course, none of it was ideal, certainly not what he’d want for his own kids. But really not worth discussing, as adults. Not with Janet anyway. And not with Nuala either. No. Just too difficult to explain how it was back then, and how it was all, somehow, all right. A form of intimacy even. Contact, rough and ready, but real. There wasn’t anything else on offer. For either of them.
In the taxi on the way to Leopardstown, Pattie and Eddie hardly speak. Pattie sits perfectly still beside him, and Eddie looks out the window. It’s raining, but softly; a nice, shiny, city rain, glinting at them from orange puddles on the black roads.
They check into their rooms in Bewley’s and make their way down to the restaurant.
At the table, when their food has arrived, and when Pattie has finished busying herself getting her plate in front of her and setting up their shared side orders between them on the table, she finally looks at Eddie.
“Are you OK, Daddy?” she says.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Eddie says. He helps himself to French fries and broccoli and cuts into his steak. When he’s had a few good mouthfuls, and drunk half his first glass of wine, he manages a smile. “I’m sorry you heard that, by the way,” he says. “It’s a side of Auntie Jan that…” He doesn’t know how to finish the sentence and they eat in silence. Pattie holds her burger in her two hands and chews conscientiously. But, when she’s finished everything on her plate, and all the side dishes are empty, and her knife and fork are lying side by side on her dinner-plate like two little metal people, she takes the linen napkin from her lap, and begins folding it up nicely. She tilts her head to one side, and Eddie can see that she’s thinking about what she’s about to say.
“Auntie Jan can be a real bitch,” she says. She’s still folding and smoothing her napkin on the table, and Eddie pours himself another glass of wine. “But I don’t think she meant to hurt you, Daddy.”
“Is that so?” he says, without much gusto; he really doesn’t want her involved in a conversation about Janet. But Pattie has something to say.
“Yes, Daddy,” she says. “I think Auntie Jan was trying to tell you she loved you.” Eddie looks at his daughter across the table. He knows he wants to say something to her, something about what she means to him, about how she makes him feel and how he appreciates her. He clears his throat.
“Pattie,” he says, “ here’s an idea…” He picks up the dessert menu and he widens his eyes at her across the table. “Just for one evening, why don’t you and I go mad? Let’s order the three biggest puddings on this list, and scoff the lot between us!”
He’d imagined going straight to bed after dinner, trying to catch up on his sleep. But when he’s left Pattie up to their rooms, Eddie goes back down to the bar. It’s a large open area and he sits in a corner and nurses a couple of whiskeys, then a couple more. He isn’t thinking about anything except the spaces in the room, the gaps between the tables and the people sitting at them, the strange disembodied music that floats everywhere. It’s what he likes most about hotel bars, the way the sounds are padded by the soft furnishings and then rise up to the high anonymous ceiling where they can cluster and mingle out of harm’s way.
Later, when he goes to their rooms, Pattie’s light is off and he shuts the door between them. He intends to get into his pyjamas and climb straight into bed, but instead, he sits in the armchair by the window. With the darkness of the room, and his tiredness, it seems to him that the orange lights of the city and the snaking dual carriageway beneath the window are at least as alive, or more alive, than him. Perhaps he nods off there, because it’s after two in the morning when his phone vibrates. It’s Janet’s number and he expects her to hiss into his ear again. But it’s Tony.
“She’s just gone,” he says to Eddie. “You’re the last one she spoke to, Eddie. She slipped away after that. I just wanted to let you know.”
“Thanks, Tony,” Eddie says. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
He sits on in the dark with the phone loose in his hand.
Janet. His mother. His father. Just three ordinary lives, nothing special about them, yet each of them so specific.
But now, they’re gone. All gone. Everyone he’d lived with as a child is gone; all that shared past and him the only one left alive, carrying it all around inside him.
His head sags onto his chest, and he starts drifting; he’s swimming, struggling in the water, towards an island. He’s dragging himself up onto the beach, lying there, face down in the sand. And he feels so exhausted lying there, so separate from everyone he loves; from Pattie, his two other daughters, from Nuala.
He wakes up a bit and feels a thirst in his throat, but deeper down too; it’s in his blood and the insides of his bones; a thirst to hear Nuala’s voice. He looks at his phone. It’s three thirty in the morning. She’ll be asleep and won’t want to be woken. Then he realises that, since Janet has just died, it will be OK to call Nuala, to let her know that his only sister is dead.
But he starts drifting in and out of sleep again, and in that muddled state, he thinks that he can just call his home in Clapham; that the phone will ring out in the darkness, and Janet will pick up, and she will hiss into his ear that he’s a little shit and that she loves him. Yes, that’s what she’ll tell him; that he’s a little shit and that she loves him.