The road shone like plastic leading them treacherously and unpredictable through the town lands of Castlegory and Glock. They were smooth, greasy and a shiny jet black. The white and yellow markings shone brightly against the blackness. The perfect road for losing control. But they weren't going to lose control, not while Alison's mother was the one driving. She took pride in always driving the speed limit. For the five miles before this, her mother gave a running commentary of every place where the speed vans could be lying in wait. She went on to tell her of all the drivers she saved from penalty points as they frustratingly held up behind her on previous trips she took to visit her husband in the nursing home.
How she talked reminded her of being in the car alone with her mother growing up. She once took her to a funeral of an uncle of a friend she had never met. Alison figured she only took her because she felt under the weather and wanted her to suffer in public. In her first week of secondary school, mercy refused to let her go. She'd gotten her period that same week, and since she was technically a woman, her mother decided to tell her about the visit from the tax man. It had been the second one because their father was late paying his yearly income tax, and the woman had to vent to someone. These memories involved more than just Alison, so she knew there was more than one view on the depressiveness of it all. Orla could have divulged all this to her sister Gloria, but Gloria had her own life's problems. Her husband Frank had fought cancer and his health for thirty years before he died.
Coming to Alison's private landmark of giant oak trees a mile out from Dunbrody village distracted her out of memory lane. The row of oaks stands like soldiers between the two counties of Kildare and Wicklow. She likes to imagine these trees house the fairies.
Alison's phone buzzes in her pocket. Her mother also hears it and gives her a look that assumes it was to do with today's activities and demands to know what it said.
'Tom and Malcolm. They're there, and they have the cake.' Alison says.
What she doesn't say to her mother is that they've pulled up in the Dunbrody village to wait for them. They don't want to be the first to arrive.
Fucking chicken shits, Alison thought.
'Tell them to go into the family room with it.' The woman says. 'It would be better for it here than in the car.'
Alison sends them the message. She keeps her phone out to wait for a reply.
She doesn't get one.
She's been thinking of all the things that could be mentioned today. It's been a fortnight since she crossed paths with Clive, six days since she talked to Malcolm, and Tom had been staying at the house for the last month but went to stay the night in Malcolm's so they could drive down from Dundalk together. James, one of her father's best friends and godfather to Malcolm, rang to confirm he was going. James was good like that. God knows where he was going to start with her or how differently he was going to preach to her about her fathers condition. No doubt he'd have found something new in research and would want her to read up about it and write up a report in layman's terms for him to understand it better.
'Have they gone on in?' Her mother asks, breaking her line of thought.
'I don't know. They never said.'
'Have they replied yet?'
'No. They might not have gotten the message. You know how the signal disappears around here.' Alison mutters.
'Signal my arse. The boys can't stand seeing their father like this, alone.'
'So the women are obliged to.'
'Yes.' Orla deliberately muttered her answer. 'Always and forever.'
'Fucking tough shit.' Alison says with meaning.
More recently, this was how Alison was feeling, and she was getting used to the feeling the more things were going well for her at work.
The clouds are clearing, and the sun is coming out as they reach the small village. Alison sees Malcolms car parked behind a red Ford Focus, hiding. Well, Saoirse's car. Living in Dublin, they say they only need one. Alison smirks because she knows they've seen their mother's car as it slows to take the turn to the nursing home. Alison sighs when she sees the nursing home sign. Due to being enclosed in such a small space with her mother, she feels the journey has been quicker than most others. And it has nothing to do with how slow she drove. And yet, there they are, getting out of the car to visit a man who doesn't remember who they are nine times out of ten. His family. Alison looks at the door with an unwelcome sense that she'll have nothing left inside her when she walks back out.
'What took you so long on your walk this morning?' Orla broke the silence between them during their journey's last few minutes. She'd seen her daughter had come back from the walk on edge but was so caught up in herself to recognise it and ask what was wrong. She'd missed a good chance to wind her daughter up. The poor dog had given up before she did. 'I thought bringing the dog for a walk was meant to be therapeutic and not put you in a fowl humour.'
'I met the neighbourhood Bart watch.'
'Can you please not call them that.' Orla said as a telling off of her daughter.
'It's what they are, and you were right in calling them that?'
'Did you tell them about your dad's birthday?'
'Yes, it was the first thing out of my mouth and the first of many things I repeated six times.'
Alison went on to tell her mother how she was stopped by their German neighbour who was out in his garden when she passed. He'd see her coming and placed himself, so she had to notice he was there and stop. And, of course, the first thing out of his mouth was, "How's your father?" Five other neighbours stopped, and Alison got asked the same question each time, so she answered it the same way.
'I can't believe you just walked away.' Orla didn't even bother to tut-tut.
'I wouldn't be here with you now if I hadn't.'
'They'll mention it to me. As a complaint, of course.'
'Of course. Yet, the neighbours were only bloody delighted. Made their morning, so it did.'
'Did you invite any of them for today?'
'Yes, of course. But they all had excuses why they couldn't come.'
Either outcome wouldn't have made Orla happy. What had happened to Alison that morning had happened to them all at some stage. It had slowly become a regular occurrence and a standing joke between them worn thin. It's the reassurance of the same possibilities wearing them all down.
The silence that fell was the kind that could ruin everything.
'I don't see them?' Orla said as she pulled up the handbrake and changed the subject smoothly. 'I thought you said they were here?'
'They were parked back in the village.' Alison said. 'Malcolm has Holly Joy with him.'
'For Christ's sake. They're grown, men.' Orla said, denouncing them for not having the guts to face their father first.
'Clive's here too.' Alison says when she gets a glimpse of her eldest brothers Merc pulling into a parking space behind them, hoping this will cheer the woman up.
'Who's with him?'
'The whole family.'
Alison laughs at how her opinions can sound so sharp and opinionated in a mutter and even sharper in silence. Alison sees her mother take a double look at something but doesn't say anything initially until she catches her daughter looking at her.
'Does Malcolm go anywhere without that daughter of his?' Orla emphasises the word anywhere because it's the truth.
The family slags him off on many things, all of which have the bases that he won't commit to anything. He loves his partner Saoirse to bits, yet he won't marry her. Alison is sure Saoirse has threatened to walk out, but even the cynic in Alison sees they couldn't live without each other. He's a freelance journalist because he can work from home. He can't face the pressure of the restrictions of a nine-to-five job, yet, he's successful. It doesn't stop Clive from pointing out how their father had failed miserably at such a thing, suggesting it ran in the blood and didn't Malcolm learn a thing from it, and also how he'll never have a pension if something happens to him. They named their daughter two instead of one because he feared committing her to just one. Holly Joy.
'When will Gloria be here?' Alison asks.
The mention of Orla's sister visually relaxes her.
Orla says nothing to her three sons for having no guts. She'll only ever say it to Alison or Bart himself. But it isn't true. Tom has been so good with him. He had stood up to the mark when he stayed at the hard times along with Alison in Bart's last few years at home. But now, they never came alone to visit their father. She gets hugged by them all and by her two grandchildren. Clive's two kids. Sean and Sarah. Sean is quiet and is hanging back. Somethings up. He's a typical boy, but she likes him. His hair looks well, and she sends the compliment his way about it. She can see he appreciated it.
Sarah scuffs at this. She can because she's pretty. And smart. Both are going to get her a long way. Today the two of them are far too tidy and clean.
Holly Joy reaches for Sarah first and Alison, but her father won't let her go. Alison, therefore, has to give the two-and-a-half-year-old an awkward hug. As she waits for the child to let her go, she sees a Buddhist bead peep out from under Malcolm's shirt. His daughter's arm accidentally exposed it by putting pressure on the material between two buttons. Alison wonders what's going through his mind at the moment.
'How's the running?' She asks.
He knows why she's asking, and she makes sure to ask about it because for all his none committals. She's the only one who does.
He runs for his mental health, which seems to work for him. He gets lost in his running. He'd even got her to try, but with Alison, she grew angry with it due to not being a natural like him. It was the only thing he got excessive about except his daughter and his writing. The more miles he does, the more he needs to get lost in something outside his head. He needed to do it before coming in here to see his father. He'll know there'll be the singing.
They both also read a lot. Alison reads fiction. In contrast, Malcolm reads almost a book daily to fill in time when he wakes at three or four in the morning. He knows more about politics than any of them, greatly annoying Clive.
'Did fifteen miles there this morning.' He told her.
'Why aren't you not sore?' Alison hopes he is because her own excessive got do waylay.
She thought of the shower she hadn't the time to take.
'Don't worry; it's killing me. Can you not smell the defeat?' He joked. 'Might never do fifteen Millie's again.'
'How many people did mother ask to come today?' Clive takes his chance to ask this while their mother is distracted by the cake.
'Not sure.' Alison says. 'She was on the phone most of yesterday.'
'Wonder how many will show?' Malcolm asks.
'Mother's up to something.' Alison says.
Both her brothers pull faces at her.
'She's been very morbid all morning.' Alison says, assuring them she didn't hear things. 'She's been going on about one last hurrah. She even checked his songbook to ensure every song was in it.'
'Christ!' Malcolm muttered on hearing about the music.
There was something of a ceremony.
'How's the pay as you go, journalist?' Clive always got bitchy when he was defending his mother.
Malcolm wasn't offended by the comment. He wrote better as an independent journalist. One man's fault is another man's gain; he'd said more than a few times over the years.
'Interviewed Joseph Carlyle on Wednesday.' Malcolm answered.
It took a second for Clive to register what the man just said.
'I didn't want to, but it was part of a portfolio thing I'm doing for a client.'
'You didn't want.....' Clive began but finished the sentence with a shake of his head. Are you living at the moment?'
'Dunlaoire.' Alison answers. 'I moved in just last week for six months.'
'Nice.' He says, sounding impressed.
Alison has been paying money into an account monthly for the past ten years. Eight hundred euros doesn't seem much these days compared to average rent. She's also invested most of it in the post office, and in three years, the first of it will soon be matured and ready to back into her account or be reinvested. She fell onto looking after people's houses. It's incredible how many people have to leave for work for just weeks or months and don't want to rent out. She has her packing down to a fine art—to three bags.
'Still down to three bags?'
'Still down to three bags.'
No one can fully determine what she gets out of the simplicity. She calls it fine art. Some call it skimping, and as I decided, as did Malcolm.
‘You’re as bad as Malcolm.’
‘And as good as you.’
That was always her reply when one of the family described her like one of the others. Clive stuck his tongue out at her at this.
In anticipation of the hour ahead, Alison closes her eyes as she waits for the door to open. She shuts everything out, shuttering everything else out until all she feels is the fresh air and the slight breeze. Not seeing the nursing home in front of her helps. Along with doing this, she takes a deep breath, filling her lungs with fresh air until they hurt. She then lets it all out until it hurts once again. This was one of the few things she took away from her only yoga class.
'Alison is coming with me to get Bart.' Orla announces when they step into the reception. 'Boys?' She gestures to the family room. 'Keep a look out for those who arrive while we're down here.'
There was a strong sense of inhibition in the gathering so far.
All five feet of Orla Cleary, nee Brophy, strode ahead of her daughter, leading her deeper into the depressingly fresh and bright bowels of the nursing home. She is wearing summer colours, which look well on her petite frame. She looked a little drained in her daughter's eye. Alison blamed it on Orla, having everything organised down to the perfection that only she understood. She wants Alison to do something wrong so she can worry about something extra. Alison can feel it weigh on her.
She can't tell her mother to slow down.
She can't tell her mother to relax.
Everyone thinks they were close, but they were far from it. The force between them is that Alison wasn't married and was now gone beyond having children. Alison hadn't the patience for it, and her job was too intimidating for a man to find her attractive. Orla told her once she'd too masculine a mind. Orla used to say to people she'd only done chemistry and physics because it was easier to get a teaching job. They weren't popular subjects to teach.
This opinion played to Alison's advantage when she lied about a job she got in research. For three years, she was telling everyone she was teaching when she had been given a three-year contract at a laboratory. Every year that passed led her further away from teaching.
Alison knows enough about herself to know she is someone who doesn't make close friends, but instead, in the last few years, as those around her got married and had children, she'd ended up with colleagues and associates instead. She let it happen because it was enough. She'd drip feed names from work and the anecdotes her family wouldn't understand, and it appeared to be enough to stop the questions. Those at work already had their close friends, and she would never be able to push past that
They find Bart in the mind frame to cooperate. She wouldn't put it past him to refuse to do anything. And then there's always a good chance he'll wee himself before they got the opportunity to bring him down there. Orla could never make the boys help change him. It had to be her or Alison.
'You're in health care.' Her mother had chimed a few weeks back when Alison pointed out how cruel it was for a daughter to see her own father's penis. At least the lads dealt with their own every day.
'I work in a lab, mum! I test drugs.' Alison reminded her mother for the hundredth time.
Last week, a bad batch of ecstasy came in that killed thirty-two people across Europe. These events included five in Ireland, showing how harmful drugs have gotten in the country. They'd randomly ended on her desk, and she'd made every dust partials answer to her. Her decisions had emails and phone calls across Europe asking her questions about what she found and how she found it. It had felt like something from the television.
The first phone call had come from Paris. The second had come from Prague, asking for her by name, and on the thousandth time she made some pass remarkable, she'd told her about Prague.