PS, I Love You
PS, I Love You
CECELIA AHERN P.S. I Love You
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2004
This edition published by Harper 2016
Copyright © Cecelia Ahern 2004
Cover design by Heike Schüssler © HarperCollinsPublishers 2016
Cecelia Ahern asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.
Source ISBN: 9780007258925
Ebook Edition © May 2016 ISBN: 9780007279364
Praise for Cecelia Ahern
‘Cecelia Ahern’s novels are like a box of emeralds … they are, one and all, dazzling gems’
Adriana Trigiani, author of The Shoemaker’s Wife
‘Beautiful and unexpected … both thought-provoking and life-affirming’
‘Intricate and emotional … really completely lovely’
‘A wry, dark drama’
‘Life-affirming, warm and wise’
‘Cecelia Ahern is an undisputed master when it comes to writing about relationships … Moving, real and exquisitely crafted.’
‘Exceptional … both heartbreaking and uplifting’
‘Both moving and thought-provoking’
‘An exquisitely crafted and poignant tale about finding the beauty that lies within the ordinary. Make space for it in your life’
‘An unusual and satisfying novel’
‘Ahern cleverly and thoughtfully turns the tables, providing thought-provoking life lessons.’
‘An intriguing, heartfelt novel, which makes you think about the value of life’
‘Insightful and true’
‘Ahern demonstrates a sure and subtle understanding of the human condition and the pleasures and pains in relationships’
‘Utterly irresistible … I devoured it in one sitting’
‘The legendary Ahern will keep you guessing … a classic’
Holly held the blue cotton sweater to her face and the familiar smell immediately struck her, an overwhelming grief knotting her stomach and pulling at her heart. Pins and needles ran up the back of her neck and a lump in her throat threatened to choke her. Panic took over. Apart from the low hum of the fridge and the occasional moaning of the pipes, the house was quiet. She was alone. Bile rose in her throat and she ran to the bathroom, where she collapsed to her knees before the toilet.
Gerry was gone and he would never be back. That was the reality. She would never again run her fingers through his soft hair, never share a secret joke across the table at a dinner party, never cry to him when she got home from a hard day at work and just needed a hug, she would never share a bed with him again, never be woken up by his fits of sneezes each morning, never laugh with him so much her stomach would ache, never fight with him about whose turn it was to get up and turn the bedroom light off. All that was left was a bundle of memories, and an image of his face that became more and more vague each day.
Their plan had been very simple: to stay together for the rest of their lives. A plan that anyone within their circle would agree was accomplishable. They were best friends, lovers and soul mates, destined to be together, everyone thought. But as it happened, one day destiny greedily changed its mind.
The end had come all too soon. After complaining of a migraine for a few days, Gerry had agreed to Holly’s advice to see his doctor. This was done one Wednesday on a lunch break from work. They thought the migraine was due to stress or tiredness, and agreed that at the very worst he might need glasses. Gerry had been upset that he might need glasses. He needn’t have worried, since it turned out it wasn’t his eyes that were the problem. It was the tumour growing inside his brain.
Holly flushed the toilet and, shivering from the coldness of the tiled floor, she shakily steadied herself to her feet. He was thirty years old. By no means was he the healthiest man on the earth, but he was healthy enough to … well, to live a normal life. When he became very sick he would bravely joke about how he shouldn’t have lived life so safely. Should have taken drugs, should have drunk more, should have travelled more, should have jumped out of aeroplanes while waxing his legs … his list went on. Even as he laughed about it Holly could see the regret in his eyes. Regret for the things he’d never made time to do, places he’d never seen and sorrow for the loss of future experiences. Did he regret the life he had had with her? Holly never doubted that he loved her, but feared he felt he had wasted precious time.
Growing older became something he wanted desperately to accomplish rather than merely a dreaded inevitability. How presumptuous they both were never to consider growing old as an achievement and a challenge. Ageing was something they wanted so much to avoid.
Holly drifted from room to room while she sobbed fat, salty tears. Her eyes were red and sore, and there seemed to be no end to this night. None of the rooms in the house provided her with any solace, just unwelcoming silences as she stared around at the furniture. She longed for the couch to hold out its arms to her but even it ignored her.
Gerry would not be happy with this, she thought. She took a deep breath, dried her eyes and tried to shake some sense into herself. No, Gerry would not be pleased at all.
Holly’s eyes were tender and puffy from crying all through the night. Just as she had every other night for the past few weeks, she had fallen into fitful sleep in the early hours of the morning. Each day she woke to find herself sprawled uncomfortably across some piece of furniture – today it was the couch. Once again it was the phone call from a concerned friend or family member that roused her. They probably thought that all she did was sleep. Where were their phone calls when she listlessly roamed the house like a zombie, searching the rooms for … for what? What was she expecting to find?
‘Hello,’ she answered groggily. Her voice was hoarse from all the tears but she had long stopped caring about maintaining a brave face. Her best friend was gone and nobody understood that no amount of make-up, fresh air or shopping was going to fill the hole in her heart.
‘Oh, sorry, love, did I wake you?’ the concerned voice of Holly’s mother came across the line. Every morning her mother called to see if she had survived the night alone, always afraid of waking her, yet always relieved to hear her speak; safe in the knowledge her daughter had braved the ghosts of the night.
‘No, I was just dozing, it’s OK.’ Always the same answer.
‘Your dad and Declan have gone out and I was thinking of you, pet.’
Why did that soothing sympathetic voice always send tears to Holly’s eyes? She could picture her mother’s face, eyebrows furrowed, forehead wrinkled with worry. But it didn’t soothe Holly. It made her remember why they were worried and that they shouldn’t have to be. Everything should be normal. Gerry should be here beside her, rolling his eyes up to heaven and trying to make her laugh while her mother yapped on. So many times Holly would have to hand the phone over to Gerry as her fit of giggles took over. Then he would chat away, ignoring Holly as she jumped around the bed, pulling her silliest faces and doing her funniest dances just to get back at him. It seldom worked.
She ‘ummed’ and ‘aahed’ throughout the conversation, listening but not hearing a word.
‘It’s a lovely day, Holly. It would do you the world of good to go out for a walk. Get some fresh air.’
‘Um, I suppose.’ There it was again – fresh air, the alleged answer to all her problems.
‘Maybe I’ll call round later and we can have a chat.’
‘No thanks, Mum. I’m OK.’
‘Well, all right … give me a ring if you change your mind. I’m free all day.’
‘OK.’ Another silence. ‘Thanks, though.’
‘Right then … take care, love.’
‘I will.’ Holly was about to replace the phone when she heard her mother’s voice again.
‘Oh, Holly, I almost forgot. That envelope is still here for you – you know, the one I told you about. It’s on the kitchen table. You might want to collect it. It’s been here for weeks now and it might be important.’
‘I doubt it. It’s probably just another card.’
‘No, I don’t think it is, love. It’s addressed to you and above your name it says … oh, hold on while I get it …’
The phone was put down, the sound of heels on the tiles toward the table, chairs screeched against the floor, footsteps getting louder, phone being picked up …
‘You still there?’
‘OK, it says at the top “The List”. Maybe it’s from work or something, love. It’s worth just taking a …’
Holly dropped the phone.
‘Gerry, turn off the light!’ Holly giggled as she watched her husband undress before her. He danced around the room performing a striptease, slowly unbuttoning his white cotton shirt with his long slender fingers. He raised his left eyebrow towards Holly and allowed the shirt to slide from his shoulders, caught it in his right hand and swung it around over his head.
Holly giggled again.
‘Turn off the light? What, and miss all this?’ he grinned cheekily while flexing his muscles. He wasn’t a vain man but had much to be vain about, thought Holly. His body was strong and perfectly toned. His long legs were muscular from hours spent working out in the gym. At almost six foot he was tall enough to make Holly feel safe when he stood protectively beside her five foot five. Most of all she loved that when she hugged him her head would rest neatly just below his chin, where she could feel his breath lightly blowing her hair and tickling her head.
Her heart leaped as he lowered his boxers, caught them on the tip of his toes and flung them at her where they landed on her head.
‘Well, at least it’s darker under here, anyway,’ she laughed. He always managed to make her laugh. When she came home tired and angry after work he was invariably sympathetic and listened to her complaining. They seldom fought, and when they did it was over stupid things that amused them after, like who had left the porch light on all day or who had forgotten to set the alarm at night.
Gerry finished his striptease and dived into the bed. He snuggled up beside her tucking his freezing cold feet underneath her legs to warm himself.
‘Aaaagh! Gerry, your feet are like ice cubes!’ Holly knew that this position meant he had no intention of budging an inch. ‘Gerry,’ Holly’s voice warned.
‘Holly,’ he mimicked.
‘Didn’t you forget something?’
‘No, not that I know of,’ he answered.
‘Ah yes, the light,’ he said sleepily, and pretended to snore loudly.
‘I had to get out of bed and do it last night, as I remember.’
‘Yeah, but you were just standing right beside the switch a second ago!’
‘Yes … just a second ago,’ he repeated.
Holly sighed. She hated having to get back out of bed when she was nice and snug, step onto the cold wooden floor, and then fumble around in the darkness on the way back to the bed. She tutted.
‘I can’t do it all the time, you know, Hol. Someday I might not be here and then what will you do?’
‘Get my new husband to do it,’ Holly huffed, trying her best to kick his cold feet away from hers.
‘Or just remember to do it myself before I get into bed.’
Gerry snorted. ‘Fat chance of that happening, my dear. I’ll have to leave a message on the light switch for you before I go, just so you’ll remember.’
‘How thoughtful of you but I would rather you just leave me your money.’
‘And a note on the immersion,’ he continued on.
‘And on the milk carton.’
‘You’re a very funny man, Gerry.’
‘Oh, and on the windows so you don’t open them and set the alarm off in the mornings.’
‘Hey, why don’t you just leave me a list of things for me to do in your will if you think I’ll be so incompetent without you?’
‘Not a bad idea,’ he laughed.
‘Fine then, I’ll turn off the bloody light.’ Holly grudgingly got out of bed, grimaced as she stepped onto the ice-cold floor and switched off the light. She held out her arms in the darkness and slowly began to find her way back to the bed.
‘Hello? Holly, did you get lost? Is there anybody out there, there, there, there?’ Gerry shouted out to the black room.
‘Yes, I’m hhhhowwwwwwcch!’ she yelped as she stubbed her toe against the bedpost. ‘Shit, shit, shit, fuck, bastard, shit, crap!’
Gerry snorted and sniggered underneath the duvet. ‘Number two on my list: watch out for bedpost …’
‘Oh, shut up, Gerry, and stop being so morbid,’ Holly snapped back at him, cradling her poor foot in her hand.
‘Want me to kiss it better?’ he asked.
‘No, it’s OK,’ Holly replied sadly, ‘if I could just put them here so I can warm …’
‘Aaaaah! Jesus Christ, they’re freezing!!’
Which made her laugh again.
So that was how the joke about the list came about. It was a silly and simple idea that was soon shared with their closest friends, Sharon and John McCarthy.
It was John who had approached Holly in the school corridor when they were just fourteen and muttered the famous words, ‘Me mate wants to know if you’ll go out with him.’ After days of endless discussion and emergency meetings with her friends, Holly eventually agreed.
‘Aah, go on, Holly,’ Sharon had urged. ‘He’s such a ride, and at least he doesn’t have spots all over his face like John.’
How Holly envied Sharon right now. Sharon and John had married the same year as Holly and Gerry. Holly was the baby of the bunch at twenty-three, the others were twenty-four. Some said she was too young and lectured her about how, at her age, she should be travelling the world and enjoying herself. Instead, Gerry and Holly travelled the world together. It made far more sense that way because when they weren’t together … well, Holly just felt as though she was missing a vital organ from her body.
Her wedding day was far from the best day of her life. Like most little girls, she had dreamed of a fairy-tale wedding with a princess dress and beautiful, sunny weather, in a romantic location surrounded by all who were near and dear to her. She imagined the reception would be the best night of her life, pictured herself dancing with all of her friends, being admired by everyone and feeling special. The reality was quite different.
She woke up in her family home to screams of, ‘I can’t find my tie!’ (her father), or, ‘My hair looks shite’ (her mother), and the best one of all was, ‘I look like a bloody whale! There’s no way I’m going to this bleeding wedding looking like this. I’ll be scarlet! Mum, look at the state of me! Holly can find another bridesmaid ’cos I’m not bleedin goin. Oi! Jack, give me back that feckin hair dryer, I’m not finished!’ That unforgettable statement was made by her younger sister, Ciara, who very regularly threw tantrums and refused to leave the house on the basis of having nothing to wear, regardless of her bursting wardrobe. She was currently living somewhere in Australia with strangers, and the only communication the family had with her was an email from her every few weeks. Holly’s family spent the rest of the morning trying to convince Ciara how she was the most beautiful woman in the world. All the while Holly silently dressed herself feeling like shite. Ciara eventually agreed to leave the house when Holly’s usually calm dad screamed at the top of his voice, and to everyone’s amazement, ‘Ciara, this is Holly’s bloody day, NOT YOURS! And you WILL go to the wedding and enjoy yourself AND when Holly walks downstairs you WILL tell her how beautiful she looks and I don’t wanna hear a peep out of you FOR THE REST OF THE DAY!’
So when Holly walked downstairs everyone oohed and aahed while Ciara, looking like a ten-year-old who had just been spanked, tearfully gazed at her with a trembling lip and said, ‘You look beautiful, Holly.’ All seven of them squashed into the limo – Holly, her parents, three brothers and Ciara, and sat in terrified silence all the way to the church.
The whole day just seemed a blur to her now. She barely had time to speak to Gerry, as they were both being pulled in opposite directions to meet Great-aunt Betty from the back arse of nowhere, whom Holly hadn’t seen since she was born, and Grand-uncle Toby from America, who had never been mentioned before but was suddenly a very important member of the family.
And nobody told her it would be so tiring either. By the end of the night Holly’s jaw was sore from smiling for photographs, and her feet were killing her from running around all day in very silly little shoes. She desperately wanted to join the large table of her friends who had been howling with laughter all night, obviously enjoying themselves. Well for some, she thought. But as soon as Holly stepped into the honeymoon suite with Gerry her worries of the day faded and the point of it all became clear.
Tears once again rolled down Holly’s face and she realised she had been daydreaming again. She sat frozen on the couch with the phone still off the hook beside her. The hours just seemed to pass her by these days without her knowing what time or even what day it was. She seemed to be living outside of her body, numb to everything but the pain in her heart, in her bones, in her head. She was just so tired … Her stomach grumbled and she realised she couldn’t remember the last time she had eaten. Had it been yesterday?
She shuffled into the kitchen, dressed in Gerry’s dressing gown and her favourite pink ‘disco diva’ slippers that Gerry had bought her the previous Christmas. She was his disco diva, he used to say. Always the first on the dance floor, always the last out of the club. Huh, where was that girl now? She opened the fridge and stared in at the empty shelves. Just vegetables and yogurt long past its sell-by date leaving a horrible stench in the fridge. She smiled weakly as she shook the milk carton. Empty. Third on his list …
Christmas two years ago Holly had gone shopping with Sharon for a dress for the annual ball they attended at the Burlington Hotel. Shopping with Sharon was always a dangerous outing, and John and Gerry had joked about how they would once again suffer through Christmas without any presents as a result of the girls’ sprees. They weren’t far wrong. Poor neglected husbands, the girls always called them.
Holly had spent a disgraceful amount of money in Brown Thomas on the most beautiful white dress she had ever seen.
‘Shit, Sharon, this will burn a huge hole in my pocket,’ she said guiltily, biting her lip and running her fingers over the soft material.
‘Aah, don’t worry, Gerry can stitch it up for you,’ Sharon replied with her infamous cackle. ‘And stop calling me “shit Sharon”. Every time we go shopping you address me as that. If you’re not careful I might start taking offence. Buy the damn thing, Holly. It’s Christmas, after all, the season of giving and all that.’
‘God, you are so evil, Sharon. I’m never shopping with you again. This is like half my month’s wages. What am I going to do for the rest of the month?’
‘Holly, would you rather eat or look fab?’
‘I’ll take it,’ Holly said excitedly to the sales assistant.
The dress was low cut, which showed off Holly’s neat little chest perfectly, and it was split to the thigh, displaying her slim legs. Gerry hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her. It wasn’t because she looked so beautiful, however. He just couldn’t understand how on earth such a little slip of material had cost that much. Once at the ball, Ms Disco Diva once again overindulged in the alcoholic beverages and succeeded in destroying her dress by spilling red wine down her front. Holly tried but failed to hold back her tears while the men at the table drunkenly informed their partners that number fifty-four on the list prevented you from drinking red wine while wearing an expensive white dress. It was then decided that milk was the preferred beverage, as it wouldn’t be visible if spilt on expensive white dresses.
Later, when Gerry knocked his pint over causing it to dribble off the edge of the table into Holly’s lap, she tearfully yet seriously announced to the table (and some of the surrounding tables), ‘Rule fitty-fife ov the list: NEFFER EFFER buy a spensive white dress.’ So it was agreed, and Sharon awoke from her coma from somewhere underneath the table to applaud and offer moral support. A toast was made (after a startled waiter had delivered a tray full of glasses of milk) to Holly and to her profound addition to the list.
‘I’m sorry bout your spensive white dress, Holly,’ John had hiccuped to Holly, before falling out of the taxi and dragging Sharon alongside him into their house.
Was it possible that Gerry had kept his word and had written a list for her before he died? She had spent every minute of every day with him up until his death and he had never even mentioned it, nor had she noticed any signs of him writing it. No, Holly, pull yourself together and don’t be stupid, she told herself. She so desperately wanted him back that she was imagining all kinds of crazy things. He wouldn’t have. Would he?
Holly was walking through an entire field of pretty tiger lilies; the wind was blowing gently, causing the silky petals to tickle the tips of her fingers as she pushed through long strands of bright green grass. The ground was soft and bouncy beneath her bare feet and her body felt so light she was almost floating just above the spongy earth. All around her, birds whistled their happy tune as they went about their business. The sun was so bright in the cloudless sky she had to shield her eyes, and with each brush of wind that passed her face the sweet scent of the tiger lilies filled her nostrils. She felt so … happy, so free.
Suddenly the sky darkened as the Caribbean sun disappeared behind a looming grey cloud. The wind picked up and the air chilled. Around her all the petals of the tiger lilies were racing through the air wildly, blurring her vision. The once spongy ground was replaced with sharp stones that cut and scraped her feet with every step. The birds had stopped singing and instead perched on their branches and stared. Something was wrong, and she felt afraid. Ahead of her in the distance a grey stone was visible amidst the tall grass. She wanted to run back to her pretty flowers, but she needed to find out what was ahead.
As she crept closer she heard BANG! BANG! BANG! She quickened her pace and raced over the sharp stones and jagged-edged grass that tore at her arms and legs. She collapsed to her knees in front of the grey slab and let out a scream of pain as she realised what it was. Gerry’s grave. BANG! BANG! BANG!
He was trying to get out. He was calling her name; she could hear him!
Holly jumped from her sleep to a loud banging on the front door.
‘Holly! Holly! I know you’re there! Please let me in!’ BANG! BANG! BANG!
Confused and half asleep, she made her way to the door to a frantic-looking Sharon.
‘Christ! What were you doing? I’ve been banging on the door for ages!’
Holly looked around outside, still not fully alert. It was bright and slightly chilly – must be morning.
‘Well, aren’t you going to let me in?’
‘Yeah, Sharon, sorry. I was just dozing on the couch.’
‘God, you look terrible, Hol.’ Sharon studied her face before giving her a big hug.
‘Wow, thanks.’ Holly rolled her eyes and turned to shut the door. Sharon was never one to beat about the bush, but that’s why she loved her so much. That’s also why Holly hadn’t been around to see Sharon for the past month. She didn’t want to hear the truth. She didn’t want to hear how she had to get on with her life; she just wanted … oh, she didn’t know what she wanted. She was content to be miserable. It somehow felt right.
‘God, it’s so stuffy in here. When’s the last time you opened a window?’ Sharon marched around the house, opening windows and picking up empty cups and plates. She brought them into the kitchen where she placed them in the dishwasher and then proceeded to tidy up.
‘Oh, you don’t have to do it, Sharon,’ Holly protested weakly. ‘I’ll do it …’
‘When? Next year? I don’t want you slumming it while the rest of us pretend not to notice. Why don’t you go upstairs and shower, and we’ll have a cup of tea when you come down?’
A shower. When was the last time she had even washed? Sharon was right, she must have looked disgusting, with her greasy hair, her dark roots and dirty robe. Gerry’s robe. But that was something she never intended to wash. She wanted it exactly as Gerry had left it. Unfortunately, his smell was beginning to fade, replaced by the unmistakable stink of her own skin.
‘OK, but there’s no milk. I haven’t got around to …’ Holly felt embarrassed by her lack of care for the house and for herself. There was no way she was letting Sharon look inside that fridge or she would definitely have her committed.
‘Ta-da!’ Sharon sang, holding up a bag Holly hadn’t noticed her carry in. ‘Don’t worry, I took care of that. By the looks of it you haven’t eaten in weeks.’
‘Thanks, Sharon.’ A lump formed in Holly’s throat and tears welled in her eyes. She was being so good to her.
‘Hold it! There will be no tears today! Just fun and laughter and general happiness, my dear friend. Now shower, quick!’
Holly felt almost human when she came back downstairs. She was dressed in a blue tracksuit and allowed her long blonde (and brown at the roots) hair to fall down on her shoulders. All the windows downstairs were wide open and the cool breeze rushed through Holly’s head. It felt as though it was eliminating all her bad thoughts and fears. She laughed at the possibility of her mother being right after all. Holly snapped out of her trance and gasped as she looked around the house. She can’t have been any longer than a half an hour but Sharon had tidied and polished, vacuumed and plumped, washed, and sprayed air freshener in every room. She followed the humming noise she could hear to the kitchen where Sharon was scrubbing the hobs. The counters were gleaming; the chrome taps and draining board sparkling.
‘Sharon, you absolute angel! I can’t believe you did all this. And in such a short time!’
‘Ha! You were gone for over an hour. I was beginning to think you’d fallen down the plughole. You would and all, the size of you.’ She looked Holly up and down.
An hour? Once again Holly’s daydreaming had taken over her mind.
‘OK, so I just bought some vegetables and fruit, there’s cheese and yogurts in there, and milk, of course. I don’t know where you keep the pasta and tinned foods so I just put them over there. Oh, and there’s a few microwave dinners in the freezer. That should do you for a while, but by the looks of you it’ll last you the year. How much weight have you lost?’
Holly looked down at her body. Her tracksuit was sagging at the bum and the waist tie was pulled to its tightest, yet still drooped to her hips. She hadn’t noticed the weight loss at all.
She was brought back to reality by Sharon’s voice again: ‘There’s a few biscuits there to go with your tea. Jammie Dodgers, your favourite.’
That did it. This was all too much for Holly. The Jammie Dodgers were the icing on the cake. She felt the tears run down her face. ‘Oh, Sharon,’ she wailed, ‘thank you so much. You’ve been so good to me and I’ve been such a horrible, horrible bitch of a friend.’ She sat at the table and grabbed Sharon’s hand. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you.’ Sharon sat opposite her in silence, allowing her to continue. This is what Holly had been dreading, breaking down in front of people at every possible occasion. But she didn’t feel embarrassed. Sharon was just patiently sipping her tea and holding her hand like it was normal. Eventually the tears stopped falling.
‘I’m your best friend, Hol; if I don’t help you then who will?’ Sharon said, squeezing her hand and giving her an encouraging smile.
‘Suppose I should be helping myself.’
‘Pah!’ Sharon spat, waving her hand dismissively. ‘Whenever you’re ready. Don’t mind all those people who say that you should be back to normal in a month. Grieving is all part of helping yourself, anyway.’
She always said the right things.
‘Yeah, well, I’ve been doing a lot of that. I’m all grieved out.’
‘You can’t be!’ said Sharon, mock disgusted. ‘And only a month after your husband is cold in his grave.’
‘Oh, stop! There’ll be plenty of that from people, though, won’t there?’
‘Probably, but screw them. There are worse sins in the world than learning to be happy again.’
‘Promise me you’ll eat.’
‘Thanks for coming round, Sharon. I really enjoyed the chat,’ Holly said, gratefully hugging her friend. ‘I feel a lot better already.’
‘You know it’s good to be around people, Hol. Friends and family can help you. Well, actually, on second thoughts, maybe not your family,’ she joked, ‘but at least the rest of us can.’
‘Oh, I realise that now. I just thought I could handle it on my own at first.’
‘Promise me you’ll call round. Or at least get out of the house once in a while.’
‘Promise.’ Holly rolled her eyes. ‘You’re beginning to sound like my mum.’
‘We’re all just looking out for you. OK, see you soon,’ Sharon said, kissing her on the cheek, ‘and EAT!’ she added, poking her in the ribs.
Holly waved to Sharon as she pulled away in her car. It was nearly dark. They had spent the day laughing and joking about old times, then crying, followed by some more laughing, then more crying again. Sharon had given her perspective too. Holly hadn’t even thought about the fact that Sharon and John had lost their best friend, that her parents had lost their son-in-law and Gerry’s parents had lost their only son. She had just been so busy thinking about herself. It had been good being with the living again, instead of moping around with the ghosts of her past. Tomorrow was a new day and she intended on beginning it by collecting that envelope.
Holly started her Friday morning well by getting up early. However, although she had gone to bed full of optimism, and excited about the prospects that lay ahead of her, she was struck afresh by the harsh reality of how difficult every moment would be. Once again she awoke in an empty bed to a silent house, but there was one small breakthrough. For the first time in over a month, she had woken up without the aid of a telephone call. She adjusted her mind, as she did every morning, to the fact that the dreams of her and Gerry being together, which had lived in her mind for the past ten hours, were just that: dreams.
She showered and dressed comfortably in her favourite blue jeans, trainers and a baby-pink T-shirt. Sharon had been right about her weight: her once-tight jeans were just about staying up with the aid of a belt. She made a face at her reflection in the mirror. She looked ugly. She had black circles under her eyes, her lips were chapped and chewed and her hair was a disaster. First thing to do was to go down to her local hairdressers and pray they could squeeze her in.
‘Jaysus, Holly!’ her stylist, Leo, exclaimed. ‘Would ya look at the state of ya! People, make way! Make way! I have a woman here in a critical condition!’ He winked at her and proceeded to push people from his path. He pulled out the chair for her and pushed her into it.
‘Thanks, Leo. I feel really attractive now,’ Holly muttered, trying to hide her beetroot-coloured face.
‘Well, don’t, ’cos you’re in bits. Sandra, mix me up the usual, Colin get the foil, Tania get me my little bag of tricks from upstairs – oh, and tell Will not to bother getting his lunch, he’s doing my twelve o’clock.’ Leo ordered everyone around, his hands flailing wildly as though he was about to perform emergency surgery. Perhaps he was.
‘Oh sorry, Leo, I didn’t mean to mess up your day.’
‘Of course you did, love. Why else would you come rushing in here at lunchtime on a Friday without an appointment? To help world peace?’
Holly guiltily bit her lip.
‘Ah, but I wouldn’t do it for anyone else but you, love.’
‘How have you been?’ He rested his skinny little behind on the counter facing Holly. Leo must have been fifty years old yet he didn’t look a day over thirty. His honey-coloured hair matched his honey-coloured skin, and he always dressed so perfectly. He was enough to make any woman feel like crap.
‘Yeah, you look it.’
‘Ah well, at least by the time you walk out of here you’ll have one thing sorted. I do hair, not hearts.’
Holly smiled gratefully at his odd little way of showing he understood.
‘But, Jaysus, Holly, when you were coming in the door did you see the word “magician” or “hairdresser” on the front of the salon? You should have seen the state of the woman who came in here today. Mutton dressed as lamb. Not far off sixty, I’d say. Handed me a magazine with Jennifer Aniston on the cover. “I want to look like that,” she says.’
Holly laughed at his impression. He had the facial expression and the hand movements all going at the same time.
‘“Jaysus,” I says, “I’m a hairdresser, not a plastic surgeon. The only way you’ll look like that is if you cut out the picture and staple it to your head.”’
‘No! Leo, you didn’t tell her that?’ Holly’s jaw dropped in surprise.
‘Of course I did! The woman needed to be told – sure, wasn’t I helping her? Swanning in here dressed like a teenager. The state of her!’
‘But what did she say?’ Holly wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes. She hadn’t laughed like this for months.
‘I flicked the pages of the mag for her and came across a lovely picture of Joan Collins. Told her it was right up her street. She seemed happy enough with that.’
‘Leo, she was probably too terrified to tell you she hated it.’
‘Ah, who cares? I have enough friends.’
‘Don’t know why,’ Holly laughed.
‘Don’t move,’ Leo ordered. Suddenly he had become awfully serious and his lips were pursed together in concentration as he separated Holly’s hair ready for colouring. That was enough to send Holly into stitches again.
‘Ah, come on, Holly,’ Leo said in exasperation.
‘I can’t help it, Leo. You got me started and now I can’t stop …’
Leo paused in what he was doing and watched her with amusement. ‘I always thought you were for the madhouse. No one ever listens to me.’
She laughed even harder. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Leo. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I just can’t stop.’ Holly’s stomach ached from laughing so hard and she was aware of all the curious glances she was attracting but she just couldn’t help it. It was as if all the missed mirth from the past couple of months were tumbling out at once.
Leo propped himself back on the counter and watched her. ‘You don’t need to apologise, Holly. Laugh all you like. You know they say it’s good for the heart.’
‘Oh, I haven’t laughed like this for ages,’ she chortled.
‘Well, you haven’t had much to laugh about, I suppose,’ he smiled sadly. Leo had loved Gerry too. They’d teased each other whenever they’d met, but they’d both known it was all in fun. Leo snapped himself out of his thoughts, tousled Holly’s hair playfully and planted a kiss on the top of her head. ‘But you’ll be all right, Holly Kennedy,’ he assured her.
‘Thanks, Leo,’ she said, calming herself down, touched by his concern. He went back to work on her hair, putting on his funny little concentrating face, which started Holly off again.
‘Oh, you laugh now, Holly, but wait till I accidentally give you a stripy head of colour. We’ll see who’s laughing then.’
‘How’s Joe?’ Holly asked, keen to change the subject before she embarrassed herself again.
‘He dumped me,’ Leo said, pushing aggressively with his foot on the chair’s pump, sending Holly higher into the air and causing her to jerk wildly in her chair.
‘O-oh, Le-eo, I-I-I-’m soooo sor-reeee. Yo-ooou twooo we-eerree soooo gree-aat togeeeeth-eeer.’
‘Yeah, well, we’re not so gree-aat together now, missy. I think he’s seeing someone else. Right. I’m going to put two shades of blonde in: a golden colour and the blonde you had before. Otherwise it’ll go that brassy colour that’s reserved for my prostitute clientele only.’
‘Oh, Leo, I’m sorry. If he has any sense at all he’ll realise what he’s missing.’
‘He mustn’t have any sense so. We split up two months ago and he hasn’t realised it yet. Or else he has and he’s delighted. I’m fed up; I’ve had enough of men. I’m just going to turn straight.’
‘Now that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard …’
Holly bounced out of the salon with delight. Without Gerry beside her, a few men looked her way, something that was alien to her and made her feel uncomfortable, so she ran to the safety of her car and prepared herself for her parents’ house. So far, today was going well. It had been a good move to visit Leo. Even in his heartbreak he worked hard to make her laugh. Holly took note of it.
She pulled up to the kerb outside her parents’ house in Portmarnock and took a deep breath. To her mother’s surprise Holly had called her first thing in the morning to arrange a time to meet up. It was three thirty now, and Holly sat outside in the car with butterflies in her tummy. Apart from the visits her parents had paid to her over the past month Holly had barely spent any proper time with her family. She didn’t want all the attention directed at her, the intrusive questions about how she was feeling and what she was going to do next being fired at her all day. However, it was time to put that fear aside. They were her family.
Her parents’ house was situated directly across the road from Portmarnock beach, the blue flag baring testament to its cleanliness. She parked the car and stared across the road to the sea. She had lived here from the day she was born till the day she moved out to live with Gerry. She had loved waking up to the sound of the sea lapping against the rocks, and the excited call of the seagulls. It was wonderful having the beach as your front garden, especially during the summer. Sharon had lived around the corner, and on the hottest days of the year the girls would venture across the road in their summer best and keep an eye out for the best-looking boys. Holly and Sharon were the complete opposite of each other: Sharon with her brown hair, fair skin, and huge bosom; Holly with her blonde hair, sallow skin, and small chest. Sharon would be loud, shouting to the boys and calling them over. Holly would just stay quiet and flirt with her eyes, fixing them on her favourite boy and not moving them till he noticed. Holly and Sharon really hadn’t changed all that much since.
She didn’t intend staying long, just have a little chat and collect the envelope. She was determined to end her silent self-torture about what could be inside. She took a deep breath, rang the doorbell and placed a smile on her face for all to see.
‘Hi, love! Come in, come in!’ said her mother with her usual welcoming, loving face that Holly just wanted to kiss every time she saw her.
‘Hi, Mum. How are you?’ Holly stepped into the house and was comforted by the familiar smell of home. ‘You on your own?’
‘Yes, your father’s out with Declan, buying paint for his room.’
‘Don’t tell me you and Dad are still paying for everything for him?’
‘Well, your father might be, but I’m certainly not. He’s working at nights now so at least he has a bit of pocket money these days. Although we don’t see a penny of it being spent on anything for here,’ she chuckled, and brought Holly to the kitchen where she put the kettle on.
Declan was Holly’s youngest brother and the baby of the family, so her mum and dad still felt they had to spoil him. But their ‘baby’ was now a twenty-two-year-old, studying film production at college and he constantly had a video camera in his hand.
‘What job has he got now?’
Her mother rolled her eyes to heaven. ‘He’s joined some band. The Orgasmic Fish, I think they call themselves, or something like that. I’m sick to death of hearing about it, Holly. If he goes on one more time about who was there at the gigs promising to sign them up and how famous they’re going to be I’ll go mad.’
‘Ah, poor Deco. Don’t worry, he’ll find something eventually.’
‘I know, and it’s funny because, of all you darling children, he’s the least I worry about. He’ll find his way.’
They brought their mugs into the sitting room and settled down in front of the television. ‘You look great, pet. I love the hair. Do you think Leo would ever do mine for me, or am I too old for his styles?’
‘Well, as long as you don’t want Jennifer Aniston’s hairstyle, you’ll have no problems.’ Holly explained about the woman in the salon and they both rolled around laughing.
‘I don’t want the Joan Collins look, so I’ll just stay clear of him.’
‘That might be wise.’
‘Any luck with a job yet?’ Her mother’s voice was casual but Holly knew she was just dying to find out.
‘No, not yet, Mum. To be honest, I haven’t even started looking. I don’t quite know what I want to do.’
‘You’re right,’ her mother nodded. ‘Take your time and think about what you like or else you’ll end up rushing into a job you hate, like the last time.’ Holly was surprised to hear this. In fact, everyone was surprising her these days. Perhaps it was herself with the problem and not the rest of the world after all.
The last job Holly had was working as a secretary for an unforgiving little slimeball in a solicitor’s office. She had been forced to leave her job when the creep failed to understand that she needed time off work to be with her dying husband. Now she had to go looking for a new one. For a new job that was. But at the moment it seemed unimaginable to go to work in the morning.
Holly and her mother sat in a relaxed atmosphere, falling in and out of conversation for a few hours until Holly finally built up the courage to ask for the envelope.
‘Oh, of course, love, I completely forgot about it. I hope it’s nothing important. It’s been there for a long time.’
‘I’ll find out soon enough.’
They said their goodbyes and Holly couldn’t get out of the house quickly enough.
Perching herself on the grass overlooking the golden sand, Holly ran the envelope over her hands. Her mother hadn’t described it very well, for it was not an envelope at all but a thick brown package. The address had been typed onto a plain sticker so she couldn’t even guess the origin. But most importantly, above the address were two words, thick and bold: ‘THE LIST’.
Her stomach did a little dance. If it wasn’t from Gerry, then Holly finally had to accept the fact that he was gone completely from her life and she had to start thinking about existing without him. But if it was from him, though she would be faced with the same future, at least she could hold on to some fresh memory. A memory that would have to last her a lifetime.
Her trembling fingers gently tore at the seal of the package. She turned it upside down and shook the contents out. Out fell ten separate tiny envelopes of the kind you would expect to find on a bouquet of flowers, each with a different month written on them. Her heart missed a few beats as she saw the familiar handwriting on a loose page underneath the pile of envelopes.
It was from Gerry.
Holly held her breath and with tears in her eyes and a pounding heart, she read the words, aware all the time that the person who had sat down to write to her would never be able to do so again. She ran her fingers over Gerry’s handwriting, knowing that the last person to have touched the page was him.
My darling Holly,
I don’t know where you are or when exactly you are reading this. I just hope that my letter has found you safe and healthy. You whispered to me not long ago that you couldn’t go on alone. You can, Holly.
You are strong and brave and you can get through this. We shared some beautiful times together and you made my life … you made my life. I have no regrets.
But I am just a chapter in your life – there will be many more. Remember our wonderful memories, but please don’t be afraid to make some more.
Thank you for doing me the honour of being my wife. For everything, I am eternally grateful.
Whenever you need me, know that I am with you.
Love for ever,
Your husband and best friend,
PS. I promised a list, so here it is. The following envelopes must be opened exactly when labelled and must be obeyed. And remember, I’m looking out for you, so I will know …
Holly broke down, sadness sweeping over her. Yet she felt relief at the same time; relief that Gerry would somehow continue to be with her for another little while. She leafed through the small white envelopes and searched through the months. It was April now. She had missed March so she delicately picked out the envelope. She opened it slowly, wanting to savour every moment. Inside was a small card with Gerry’s handwriting on it. It read:
Save yourself the bruises and buy a bedside lamp!
PS. I love you …
Her tears turned to laughter as she realised her Gerry was back!
Holly read and reread his letter over and over again in an attempt to summon him back to life. Eventually, when she could no longer see the words through her tears, she looked out to sea. She had always found the sea so calming, and even as a child she would run across the road to the beach if she was upset and needed to think. Her parents knew that when she went missing from the house they would find her here by the sea.
She closed her eyes and breathed in and out along with the gentle sighing of the waves. It was as though the sea was taking big deep breaths; pulling the water in while it inhaled and pushing it all back up onto the sand as it exhaled. She continued to breathe along with it and felt her pulse rate slow down as she became calmer. She thought about how she used to lie by Gerry’s side during his final days and listen to the sound of his breathing. She had been terrified to leave him, even to answer the door, to fix him some food or to go to the toilet, just in case that was the time he chose to leave her. When she would return to his bedside she would sit frozen in a terrified silence while she listened for his breathing and watched his chest for any movement.
But he’d always managed to hang on. He had baffled the doctors with his strength and determination to live; Gerry wasn’t prepared to go without a fight. He kept his good humour right up until the end. He was so weak and his voice so quiet, but Holly had learned to understand his new language as a mother does her babbling child just learning to talk. They would giggle together late into the night and other nights they would hold each other and cry. Holly remained strong for him. Throughout, her new job was to be there for him whenever he needed her. Looking back on it, she knew that she really needed him more than he needed her. She needed to be needed so she could feel that she wasn’t just standing idly by, utterly helpless.
On the second of February at four o’clock in the morning, Holly held Gerry’s hand tightly and smiled at him encouragingly as he took his last breath and closed his eyes. She didn’t want him to be afraid, and she didn’t want him to feel that she was afraid, because at that moment she wasn’t. She felt relief – relief that his pain was gone, and relief that she had been there with him to witness the peace of his passing. She felt relieved to have known him, to have loved him and to be loved by him, and relief that the last thing he saw was her face smiling down on him, encouraging him and assuring him it was OK to let go.
The days after that were a blur to her now. She had occupied herself by making the funeral arrangements and by meeting and greeting Gerry’s relatives and old school friends that she hadn’t seen for years. She remained so solid and calm through it all. She was just thankful that, after months, his suffering was over. It didn’t occur to her to feel the anger or bitterness that she felt now for the life that was taken away from her. That feeling didn’t arrive until she went to collect her husband’s death certificate.
And then that feeling made a grand appearance.
As she sat in the crowded waiting room of her local health clinic, waiting for her number to be called, she wondered why on earth Gerry’s number had been called so early in his life. She was sandwiched between a young couple and an elderly one – the picture of what she and Gerry had once been, and a glimpse of the future they could have had. And it all just seemed unfair. While the noise of screaming children was amplified in the room, Holly felt squashed between the shoulders of her past and her lost future, and she felt suffocated. She shouldn’t have to be there.
None of her friends had to be there.
None of her family had to be there.
In fact the majority of the population of the world didn’t have to be in the position she was in right then.
It didn’t seem fair.
Because it just wasn’t fair.
After presenting the official proof of her husband’s death to bank managers and insurance companies, as if the look on her face wasn’t proof enough, Holly returned home to her nest and locked herself away from the rest of the world that contained hundreds of memories of the life she had once had. The life she had been very happy with. So why had she been given another one, and a far worse one at that?
That was two months ago, and she hadn’t left the house until today. And what a welcome she had been given, she thought, smiling down at the envelopes. Gerry was back.
Holly could hardly contain her excitement as she furiously dialled Sharon’s number with trembling hands. After reaching a few wrong numbers she eventually calmed herself and concentrated on dialling correctly.
‘Sharon!’ she squealed as soon as the phone was picked up. ‘You’ll never guess what. Oh my God, I can’t believe it!’
‘Eh, no … it’s John, but I’ll get her for you now.’ A worried John rushed off to get Sharon.
‘What, what, what?’ panted a very out-of-breath Sharon. ‘What’s wrong? Are you OK?’
‘Yes, I’m fine!’ Holly started giggling hysterically, not knowing whether to laugh or cry and suddenly forgetting how to structure a sentence.
John watched as Sharon sat down at her kitchen table, looking very confused while she tried with all her strength to make sense of the rambling Holly. It was something about Mrs Kennedy giving Holly a brown envelope with a bedside lamp in it. It was all very worrying.
‘STOP!’ shouted Sharon, much to Holly and John’s surprise. ‘I cannot understand a word you are saying, so please,’ Sharon spoke very slowly, ‘slow down, take a deep breath and start from the very beginning, preferably using words from the English language.’
Suddenly she heard quiet sobs from the other end.
‘Oh, Sharon,’ Holly’s words were quiet and broken, ‘he wrote me a list. Gerry wrote me a list.’
Sharon froze in her chair while she digested this information.
John watched his wife’s eyes widen and he quickly pulled out a chair and sat next to her, shoving his head towards the telephone so he could hear what was going on.
‘OK, Holly, I want you to get over here as quickly but as safely as you can.’ Sharon paused again and swatted John’s head away as if he was a fly so she could concentrate on what she had just heard. ‘This is … great news?’
John stood up from the table, insulted, and began to pace the kitchen floor, trying to guess what the news could be.
‘Oh, it is, Sharon,’ sobbed Holly, ‘it really is.’
‘OK, make your way over here now and we can talk about it.’
Sharon hung up the phone and sat in silence.
‘What? What is it?’ demanded John.
‘Oh, sorry, love. Holly’s on the way over. She … em … she said that eh …’
‘WHAT, for Christsake?’
‘She said that Gerry wrote her a list.’
John studied her face and tried to decide if she was serious. Sharon’s worried blue eyes stared back at him and he realised she was. He joined her at the table and they both sat in silence and stared at the wall, lost in thought.
‘Wow,’ was all Sharon and John could say as the three of them sat around the kitchen table in silence, staring at the contents of the package that Holly had emptied as evidence. Conversation between them had been minimal for the last few minutes as they all tried to decide how they felt. It had gone something like this:
‘But how did he manage to …?’
‘But how didn’t we notice him … well …? God.’
‘When do you think he …? Well, I suppose he was on his own sometimes …’
Holly and Sharon just sat looking at each other while John stuttered and stammered his way through trying to figure out just when, where and how his terminally ill friend had managed to carry out this idea all alone without anyone finding out.
‘Wow,’ he eventually repeated after coming to the conclusion that Gerry had done just that. He had carried it out alone.
‘I know,’ Holly agreed. ‘So the two of you had absolutely no idea then?’
‘Well, I don’t know about you, Holly, but it’s pretty clear to me that John was the mastermind behind all of this,’ Sharon said sarcastically.
‘Ha-ha,’ John replied drily. ‘He kept his word, anyway, didn’t he?’ John looked to both of the girls with a smile on his face.
‘He sure did,’ Holly said quietly.
‘Are you OK, Holly? I mean, how do you feel about all this? It must be … weird,’ asked Sharon again, clearly concerned.
‘I feel fine.’ Holly was thoughtful. ‘Actually, I think it’s the best thing that could have happened right now! It’s funny, though, how amazed we all are, considering how much we went on about this list. I mean, I should have been expecting it.’
‘Yeah, but we never expected any of us to ever do it!’ said John.
‘But why not?’ questioned Holly. ‘This was the whole reason for it in the first place! To be able to help your loved ones after you go.’
‘I think Gerry was the only one who took it really seriously.’
‘Sharon, Gerry is the only one of us who is gone. Who knows how seriously anyone else would have taken it?’
There was a silence.
‘Well, let’s study this more closely then,’ perked up John, suddenly starting to enjoy himself. ‘There’s how many envelopes?’
‘Em … there’s ten,’ counted Sharon, joining in with the spirit of their new task.
‘OK, so what months are there?’ John asked. Holly sorted through the pile.
‘There’s March, which is the lamp one I’ve already opened, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December.’
‘So there’s a message for every month left in the year,’ Sharon said slowly, lost in thought. They sat in silence, thinking the same thing: Gerry had known he wouldn’t live past February.
Holly looked happily at her friends. Whatever Gerry had in store for her was going to be interesting, but he had already succeeded in making her feel almost normal again, laughing with John and Sharon while they guessed what the envelopes contained. It was as though he was still with them.
‘Hold on!’ John exclaimed very seriously.
His blue eyes twinkled. ‘It’s April now and you haven’t opened this month’s envelope yet.’
‘Oh, of course! Should I do it now?’
‘Go on,’ encouraged Sharon.
Holly picked up the envelope and slowly opened it. There were only eight more to open after this and she wanted to treasure every second before it became another memory. She pulled out the little card.
A disco diva must always look her best. Go shopping for an outfit as you’ll need it for next month!
PS. I love you …
‘Ooooh,’ John and Sharon squealed with excitement, ‘he’s getting cryptic!’
Holly lay on her bed, switching the lamp on and off, with a smile on her face like a demented woman. She and Sharon had gone shopping in Bed Knobs and Broomsticks in Malahide, and both girls had eventually agreed on the beautifully carved wooden stand and the cream shade that matched the cream and wooden furnishings of the master bedroom (of course they had chosen the most ridiculously expensive one, it would have been wrong to spoil tradition). And although Gerry hadn’t physically been there with her as she bought it, she felt as though they had made the purchase together.
She had drawn the curtains of her bedroom in order to test her new merchandise. The bedside lamp had a softening effect on the room, making it appear warmer. How easily this could have ended their nightly arguments, but perhaps neither of them wanted to end them. It had become a routine, something familiar that made them feel closer. How she would give anything to have one of those little arguments now. And she would gladly get out of her cosy bed for him, she would gladly walk on the cold floor for him, and she would gladly bruise herself on the bedpost whilst fumbling in the dark for the bed. But that time was gone.
The sound of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ snapped her back to the present as she realised her mobile phone was ringing.
‘G’day, mate, I’m hooooome!’ shrieked a familiar voice.
‘Oh my God, Ciara! I didn’t know you were coming home!’
‘Well, neither did I, actually, but I ran out of money and decided to surprise you all!’
‘Wow, I bet Mum and Dad were surprised all right.’
‘Well, Dad did drop the towel with fright when he stepped out of the shower.’
Holly covered her face with her hands, ‘Oh, Ciara, he didn’t!’
‘No hugs for Daddy when I saw him!’ Ciara laughed.
‘Oh, yuck, yuck, yuck. Change the subject, I’m having horrible visions,’ Holly laughed.
‘OK, well, I was calling to tell you that I was home, obviously, and that Mum’s organising dinner tonight to celebrate.’
‘Me being alive.’
‘Oh, OK. I thought you might have an announcement or something.’
‘That I’m alive.’
‘O … K. So who’ll be there?’
‘The whole family.’
‘Did I mention that I’m going to the dentist to have all my teeth pulled out? Sorry I can’t make it.’
‘I know, I know, I said the same thing to Mum, but we haven’t all been together for ages. Sure, when’s the last time you’ve even seen Richard and Meredith?’
‘Oh, good ol’ Dick – he was in flying form at the funeral. Had lots of wise and comforting things to say to me like, “Did you not consider donating his brain to medical science?” Yes, he’s a fantastic brother all right.’
‘Oh gosh, Holly, I’m sorry, I forgot about the funeral.’ Her sister’s voice changed. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t make it.’
‘Ciara, don’t be silly. We both decided it was best you stay,’ Holly said briskly. ‘It’s far too expensive to be flying back and forth from Australia so let’s not bring it back up, OK?’
Holly quickly changed the subject. ‘So when you say the whole family, do you mean …?’
‘Yes, Richard and Meredith are bringing our adorable little niece and nephew. And Jack and Abbey are coming, you’ll be pleased to know. Declan will be there in body but probably not in mind, Mum, Dad and me, of course, and you WILL be there.’
Holly groaned. As much as Holly moaned about her family she had a great relationship with her brother Jack. He was only two years older than she, so they had been close when growing up, and he had always been very protective of her. Their mother had called them her ‘two little elves’, because they were always getting up to mischief around the house, usually aimed at their eldest brother, Richard. Jack was similar to Holly in both looks and personality, and she considered him to be the most normal of her siblings. It also helped that she got along with his partner of seven years, Abbey, and when Gerry was alive the four of them often met up for dinner and drinks. When Gerry was alive … God, that didn’t sound right.
Ciara was a different kettle of fish altogether. Jack and Holly were convinced she was from the planet Ciara, population: one. Ciara had the look of their father – long legs and dark hair. She also had various tattoos and piercings on her body as a result of her travels around the world. A tattoo for every country, her dad used to joke. A tattoo for every man, Holly and Jack were convinced.
Of course, this carry-on was all frowned upon by the eldest sibling, Richard (or Dick, as he was known to Jack and Holly). Richard was born with the serious affliction of being an eternal old man. His life revolved around rules and regulations and obedience. When he was younger he had one friend and they had a fight when they were ten, and after that Holly could never remember him bringing anyone home, having any girlfriends or ever going out to socialise. She and Jack thought it was a wonder he even met his equally joyless wife, Meredith – probably at an anti-happiness convention.
It wasn’t as though Holly had the worst family in the world, it was just that they were such a strange mix of people. The huge clashes of personalities usually led to arguments at the most inappropriate times or, as Holly’s parents preferred to call them, ‘heavy discussions’. They could get along, but that was with everyone really trying and being on their best behaviour.
Holly and Jack often met up for lunch or for drinks, just to catch up on each other’s lives. She enjoyed his company and considered him to be not only a brother but a real friend. Lately they hadn’t seen much of each other. Jack understood Holly well and knew when she needed her space.
The only time Holly caught up on her younger brother, Declan’s, life was when she called at the house looking for her parents and he would answer. Declan wasn’t a great conversationalist. He was an overgrown ‘boy’ who didn’t yet quite feel comfortable in the company of adults so Holly never really knew that much about him. Although she was aware of his unbreakable loyalty to his band, The Orgasmic Fish (whom she had yet to see perform), and if it wasn’t a guitar that he had in his hand, it was a video camera. A nice guy, he just had his head up in the clouds a bit.
Ciara, her twenty-four-year-old little sister, had been away for the entire year and Holly had missed her. They were never the kind of sisters to swap clothes and giggle about boys – their tastes differed so much – though as the only two girls in a family of brothers, they formed a bond. But Ciara was closer to Declan; both of them were dreamers. With Jack and Holly inseparable as children and friends as adults, that left Richard. He was out on his own in the family but Holly suspected he liked that feeling of being separated from those he couldn’t quite understand. Holly was dreading his lectures on all-things-boring, his insensitive questioning of her life and just the whole feeling of being frustrated by comment after comment at the dinner table. But it was a welcome-home dinner for Ciara, and Jack would be there; Holly could count on him.
But was Holly looking forward to tonight? Absolutely not.
Holly reluctantly knocked on the door and immediately heard the pounding of tiny feet flying towards the door, followed by a voice so loud that should not have belonged to a child.
‘Mummy! Daddy! It’s Aunty Holly, it’s Aunty Holly!’
It was nephew Timothy, nephew Timothy.
His happiness was suddenly crushed by a stern voice (although it was unusual for her nephew to be happy about Holly’s arrival. Things must be even more boring in there than usual). ‘Timothy! What did I tell you about running in the house? You could fall and hurt yourself. Now go stand in the corner and think about what I said. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Ah, come on, Meredith, will he hurt himself on the carpet or on the comfy padded couch?’
Holly laughed to herself; Ciara was definitely home. Just as Holly was contemplating escape, the door swung open and there stood Meredith. She looked even more sour-faced and unwelcoming than usual.
‘Holly.’ She nodded her head in acknowledgement.
‘Meredith,’ Holly imitated.
Once in the living room Holly looked around for Jack, but to her disappointment he was nowhere to be seen. Richard stood in front of the fireplace, dressed in a surprisingly colourful sweater; perhaps he was letting his hair down tonight. He had his hands in his pockets and was rocking back and forth from his heels to the balls of his toes like a man mid-lecture. His lecture was aimed at their father, Frank, who sat uncomfortably in his favourite armchair, looking like a chastised schoolboy. Richard was so lost in his story he didn’t see Holly. She blew her poor father a kiss from across the room, not wanting to be brought into their conversation. He smiled at her and pretended to catch her kiss.
Declan was slumped on the couch wearing his ripped jeans and South Park T-shirt, puffing furiously on a cigarette while Meredith warned him of the dangers of smoking. ‘Really? I didn’t know that,’ he said, sounding worryingly interested while stabbing out his cigarette. Meredith’s face looked satisfied until Declan winked at Holly, reached for the box and immediately lit up another one. ‘Tell me some more, please, I’m just dying to know.’ Meredith stared back at him in disgust.
Ciara was hiding behind the couch, throwing pieces of popcorn at the back of Timothy’s head. He stood facing the wall in the corner of the room, too afraid to turn round. Abbey was pinned to the floor and being bossed around by little five-year-old Emily and an evil-looking doll. She caught Holly’s eye and mouthed ‘Help’ to her.
‘Hi, Ciara.’ Holly approached her sister, who jumped up and gave her a big hug, squeezing Holly a bit tighter than usual. ‘Nice hair.’
‘You like it?’
‘Yeah, pink is really your colour.’
Ciara looked satisfied. ‘That’s what I tried to tell them,’ she said, squinting at Richard and Meredith. ‘So how’s my big sis?’ Ciara asked softly, rubbing Holly’s arm affectionately.
‘Oh, you know,’ Holly smiled weakly. ‘I’m hanging in there.’
‘Jack is in the kitchen helping your mum with the dinner, if you’re looking for him, Holly,’ Abbey announced, then widening her eyes and mouthing ‘Help me’ again.
Holly raised her eyebrows at Abbey. ‘Really? Well, isn’t he great, helping out Mum?’
‘Oh, Holly, you know how much Jack just loves cooking. Can’t get enough of it,’ she said sarcastically.
Holly’s dad chuckled to himself, which stopped Richard in his tracks.
‘What’s so funny, Father?’
Frank shifted in his seat nervously. ‘I just find it remarkable that all this happens in one tiny little test tube.’
Richard let out a disapproving sigh at his father’s stupidity. ‘Yes, but you have to understand these are so minuscule, Father, it’s rather fascinating. The organisms combine with the …’ And away he went again while his father settled back down in his chair and tried to avoid eye contact with Holly.
Holly tiptoed quietly into the kitchen where she found her brother at the table with his feet up on a chair, munching on some food. ‘Ah, here he is, the Naked Chef himself.’
Jack smiled and stood up. ‘There’s my favourite sister.’ He scrunched up his nose. ‘I see you got roped into coming to this thing as well.’ He walked towards her and held out his arms to offer her one of his big bear hugs. ‘How are you?’ he said quietly into her ear.
‘I’m OK, thanks.’ Holly smiled sadly and kissed him on the cheek before turning to her mother. ‘Darling Mother, I am here to offer my services at this extremely stressful and busy time of your life,’ Holly said, planting a kiss on her mother’s flushed cheek.
‘Oh, aren’t I just the luckiest woman in the world, having such caring children like you?’ Elizabeth said sarcastically. ‘Tell you what, you can just drain the water from the potatoes there.’
‘Mum, tell us about the time when you were a little girl during the famine and the spuds were gone,’ Jack said, putting on an exaggerated Irish accent.
Elizabeth hit him across the head playfully with the tea towel. ‘Ah sure, ’tis years before my time, son.’
‘Sure, ’tis true,’ said Jack.
‘No, you t’aren’t at all,’ joined in Holly.
They both stopped and stared at her. ‘Since when is there such a word as “t’aren’t”?’ laughed her mum.
‘Ah, shut up, the both of you.’ Holly joined her brother at the table.
‘I hope you two won’t be getting up to any mischief tonight. I would like this to be an argument-free zone for a change.’
‘Mother, I am shocked the thought even crossed your mind.’ Jack winked across to Holly.
‘All right,’ she said, not believing a word of it. ‘Well, sorry, my babies, but there’s nothing else to be done here. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.’
‘Oh.’ Holly was disappointed.
Elizabeth joined her children at the table and the three of them stared at the kitchen door, all thinking the same thing.
‘No, Abbey,’ squealed Emily loudly, ‘you’re not doing what I tell you,’ and she burst into tears. This was shortly followed by a loud guffaw from Richard; he must have cracked a joke because he was the only one laughing.
‘But I suppose it’s important that we all stay here and keep an eye on the dinner,’ Elizabeth added.
‘OK, everyone, dinner is served,’ announced Elizabeth, and the family made their way to the dining room. There was an awkward moment like at a children’s birthday party while everyone scuffled to sit beside their best friend. Eventually Holly was satisfied with her position at the table and settled down with her mother on her left at the end of the table and Jack to her right. Abbey sat with a scowl on her face as she had been placed between Jack and Richard. Jack would have some making up to do when he got home. Declan sat opposite Holly and wedged in between him was an empty seat where Timothy should be sitting, then Emily and Meredith, then Ciara. Holly’s father got a raw deal, sitting at the head of the table between Richard and Ciara, but he was such a calm man he was the best one for the job.
Everyone oohed and aahed as Elizabeth brought out the food and its aroma filled the room. Holly had always loved her mother’s cooking; she was never afraid to experiment with new flavours and recipes, a trait that had not been passed down to her daughter.
‘Hey, poor little Timmy must be starving out there,’ Ciara exclaimed to Richard. ‘He must have done his time by now.’
She knew she was skating on thin ice but she loved the danger of it and, more importantly, she loved to wind up Richard. After all, she had to make up for lost time – she had been away for a year.
‘Ciara, it’s important that Timothy knows when he has done something wrong,’ explained Richard.
‘Yeah, but couldn’t you just tell him?’
The rest of the family tried hard not to laugh.
‘He needs to know that his actions will lead to serious consequences so he will not repeat it.’
‘Ah well,’ she said, raising her voice a few decibels, ‘he’s missing all this yummy food. Mmm mmm mmm,’ she said, licking her lips.
‘Stop it, Ciara,’ Elizabeth snapped.
‘Or you’ll have to stand in the corner,’ Jack added sternly.
The table erupted with laughter – bar Meredith and Richard, of course.
‘So, Ciara, tell us about your adventures in Australia,’ Frank moved swiftly on.
Her eyes lit up. ‘Oh, I had the most amazing time, Dad. I would definitely recommend going there to anyone.’
‘Awful long flight, though,’ Richard said.
‘Yeah, it is but it’s so worth it.’
‘Did you get any more tattoos?’ Holly asked.
‘Yeah, look.’ With that, Ciara stood up at the table and pulled down her trousers, revealing a butterfly on her behind.
Mum, Dad, Richard and Meredith protested in outrage while the others sat in convulsions of laughter. Finally, when Ciara had apologised and Meredith had removed her hands from Emily’s eyes, the table settled down.
‘They are revolting things,’ Richard said in disgust.
‘I think butterflies are pretty, Daddy,’ said Emily with big innocent eyes.
‘Yes, some butterflies are pretty, Emily, but I’m talking about tattoos. They can give you all sorts of diseases and problems.’ Emily’s smile faded.
‘Hey, I didn’t exactly get this done in a dodgy place sharing needles with drug users, you know. The place was perfectly clean.’
‘Well, that’s an oxymoron if ever I heard one,’ sniffed Meredith.
‘Been in one recently, Meredith?’ Ciara asked a bit too forcefully.
‘Well, em … n-n-n-no,’ she stuttered, ‘I have never been in one, thank you very much, but I am sure they are.’ Then she turned to Emily. ‘They are dirty, horrible places, Emily, where only dangerous people go.’
‘Is Aunt Ciara dangerous, Mummy?’
‘Only to five-year-old little girls with red hair,’ Ciara said, stuffing her face with potatoes.
‘Richard dear, do you think that Timmy might want to come in now for some food?’ Elizabeth asked politely.
‘It’s Timothy,’ Meredith interrupted.
‘Yes, Mother, I think that would be OK.’
A very sorry little Timothy walked slowly into the room with his head down, and took his place silently beside Declan. Holly’s heart leaped out to him. How cruel to treat a child like that, how cruel to stop him from being a child … Her sympathy diminished immediately as she felt his foot kick her shin underneath the table. They should have left him out there.
‘So, Ciara, come on, give us the gossip. Do anything wild and wonderful out there?’ Holly pushed for more information.
‘Oh yeah, I did a bungee jump, actually – well, I did a few. I have the photo here.’ She reached into her back pocket and everyone looked away just in case she was planning on revealing any more bits of her anatomy. Thankfully she took out only her wallet and passed the photo from it around the table.
‘The first one I did was off a bridge and my head hit the water when I fell …’
‘Oh, Ciara, that sounds dangerous,’ her mother said with her hands across her face.
‘Oh no, it wasn’t dangerous at all,’ she reassured her.
The photograph was passed to Holly, and she and Jack burst out laughing. Ciara dangled upside down from a rope with her face contorted in the middle of a scream of pure terror. Her hair (it was blue at that time) was shooting out in all directions as though she had been electrocuted.
‘Attractive photo, Ciara. Mum, you must get that framed for over the fireplace,’ Holly joked.
‘Yeah!’ Ciara’s eyes lit up. ‘That would be a cool idea.’
‘Sure, darling, I’ll just take down the one of you making your Holy Communion and replace it with that,’ Elizabeth said sarcastically.
‘Well, I don’t know which one would be scarier,’ said Declan.
‘Holly, what are you doing for your birthday?’ asked Abbey, leaning across towards her. She was clearly dying to get out of the conversation she was having with Richard.
‘Oh, that’s right!’ shouted Ciara. ‘You’re gonna be thirty next week!’
‘I’m not doing anything big at all,’ she warned everyone. ‘I don’t want any surprise party or anything, PLEASE.’
‘Oh, you have to—’ said Ciara.
‘No, she doesn’t have to if she doesn’t want to,’ her father interrupted, and winked supportively at Holly.
‘Thank you, Dad. I’m just going to have a girly night out clubbing or something. Nothing mad, nothing wild.’
Richard tutted as the photograph reached him and passed it on to his father, who chuckled to himself over the sight of Ciara.
‘Yes, I agree with you, Holly,’ said Richard, ‘those birthday celebrations are always a bit embarrassing. Grown adults acting like children, doing “Rock the boat” on the floor and drinking far too much. You’re quite right.’
‘Well, I actually quite enjoy those parties, Richard,’ Holly shot back, ‘but I just don’t feel in the celebratory mood this year, that’s all.’
There was a silence for a moment before Ciara piped up, ‘A girly night it is then.’
‘Can I tag along with the camera?’ asked Declan.
‘Just for some footage of clubs and stuff for college.’
‘Well, if it’ll help … but as long as you know I won’t be going to all the trendy places that you like.’
‘No, I don’t mind where you g— OW!’ he shouted, and stared menacingly at Timothy.
Timmy stuck his tongue out at him and the conversation continued. After the main course was finished Ciara disappeared out of the room, returned with a bulging bag in her hand and announced, ‘Presents!’
Timmy and Emily cheered. Holly hoped that Ciara had remembered to get them something.
Her father received a colourfully painted boomerang that he pretended to throw down to his wife; Richard was given a T-shirt with the map of Australia on it, which he immediately began to teach to Timmy and Emily at the table; Meredith quite comically wasn’t given anything; Jack and Declan were given T-shirts with perverted pictures and a caption saying, ‘I’ve been to the bush’, and Elizabeth received a collection of old aboriginal recipes. Holly was touched by her dream catcher made from brightly coloured feathers and sticks.
‘So all your dreams come true,’ Ciara whispered in her ear before kissing her on the cheek.
Thankfully Ciara had bought sweets for Timmy and Emily, which looked strangely like the sweets they could buy from the local shop. These were briskly taken away by Richard and Meredith, who claimed they would rot their teeth.
‘Well, give them back then so I can rot my own,’ Ciara demanded.
Timmy and Emily looked around sadly at everyone’s presents and were immediately chastised by Richard for not concentrating on the map of Australia. Timmy made a face at Holly and a warm feeling returned to her heart. As long as the kids kept acting as if they deserved their treatment, that was OK with her.
‘Right, we better hit the road, Richard, or the children will fall asleep where they sit,’ announced Meredith. The children were wide awake and were kicking Holly and Declan repeatedly under the table.
‘Well, before everybody goes disappearing –’ Holly’s father announced loudly over the chatter. The table grew silent – ‘I would like to propose a toast to our beautiful daughter Ciara.’ He smiled at her and Ciara lapped up all the attention. ‘We missed you, love, and we’re glad you’re home safely,’ Frank finished. He lifted his glass into the air. ‘To Ciara!’
‘To Ciara!’ everyone repeated.
As soon as the door closed behind Richard and Meredith everyone else began to leave one by one. Holly stepped into the chilly air and walked to her car alone. Her mum and dad stood at the door waving her off but she still felt so lonely. Usually she left dinner parties with Gerry, or if not with him then she was returning home to him. But not tonight or the next night or the night after that.
On her birthday, Holly stood in front of the full-length mirror and inspected herself. She had carried out Gerry’s orders and had purchased a new outfit. What for, she didn’t know but several times a day she had to drag herself away from the temptation of opening the envelope for May. There were only two days left until she could and the anticipation left her no room to think of anything else.
She had settled on wearing an all-black outfit to suit her current mood. Black fitted trousers slimmed her legs and were tailored perfectly to sit over her black boots. A black corset that made her look like she had a bigger chest finished the outfit off perfectly. Leo had done a wonderful job on her hair, tying it up and allowing strands to fall in loose waves around her shoulders. Holly ran her fingers through her hair and smiled at the memory of her time at the hairdressers …
She had arrived at the salon with her face flushed, and out of breath. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, Leo. I got caught on the phone and didn’t realise the time.’
‘Don’t worry, love. Whenever you make an appointment I have the staff trained to pencil it in for half an hour later. COLIN!’ he yelled, clicking his fingers in the air.
Colin dropped everything and ran.
‘God, are you taking horse tranquillisers or something? The length of your hair already, and I just cut it a few weeks ago.’
He pumped vigorously on the chair, raising Holly higher. ‘Anything special tonight?’ he asked.
‘The big three-0,’ she said, biting her lip.
‘What’s that, your local bus route?’
‘No! I’m the big three-0!’
‘Of course I knew that, love. COLIN!’ he yelled again, snapping his fingers in the air once more.
Colin appeared from the staff room behind Holly with a cake in his hand, followed by a row of hairdressers joining Leo in a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’. Holly was dumbfounded. She battled the tears that were welling in her eyes and failed miserably. By this stage the entire salon had joined in and Holly was so overwhelmed by their show of love. When it was over everyone applauded and normal business resumed.
Holly couldn’t speak.
‘Christ Almighty, Holly, one week you’re in here laughing so hard you practically fall off your chair and the next visit you’re crying!’
‘Oh, but that was just so special, Leo, thank you,’ she said, drying her eyes and giving him a huge hug and a kiss.
‘Well, I had to get you back after you mortified me,’ he said, shrugging her off, uncomfortable with the sentimentality.
Holly laughed, remembering Leo’s surprise fiftieth birthday party. The theme had been ‘feathers and lace’. Holly had worn a beautiful tight-fitting lace dress, and Gerry, who was always game for a laugh, had worn a pink feather boa to match his pink shirt and tie. Leo claimed to have been excruciatingly embarrassed but everyone knew he was secretly delighted with all the attention. The next day, Leo had rung every guest who had attended the party and left a threatening message on their machine. Holly had been terrified to make an appointment with him for weeks after that in case he butchered her hair. Word had it that business was very slow for Leo that week.
‘Well, you enjoyed the stripper that night, anyway,’ Holly teased.
‘Enjoyed? I went out with him for a month after that. The bastard.’
A slice of cake arrived in front of each customer and everyone turned to thank her.
‘Don’t know why they’re thanking you,’ Leo muttered under his breath. ‘I’m the one who bloody bought it.’
‘Don’t worry, Leo, I’ll make sure your tip covers the cost.’
‘Are you mad? Your tip wouldn’t cover the cost of my bus fare home.’
‘Leo, you live next door.’
Holly pouted her lip and pretended to sulk.
Leo laughed. ‘Thirty years old and you’re still acting like a baby. Where are you off to tonight?’
‘Oh, nowhere mad. I just want a low-key, nice quiet night out with the girls.’
‘That’s what I said at my fiftieth. Who’s going?’
‘Sharon, Ciara, Abbey, and Denise – haven’t seen her for ages.’
‘Yeah, her and her pink hair.’
‘Merciful hour! She’ll stay away from me if she knows what’s good for her. Right, missus, you look fab, you’ll be the belle of the ball – have fun!’
Holly stopped daydreaming and gazed at her reflection in the mirror. She didn’t look thirty or feel thirty. But then again what was being thirty supposed to feel like? When she was younger, thirty seemed so far away, she’d thought that a woman of that age would be wise and knowledgeable, settled in her life with a husband and children and a career. She had none of those things. She still felt as clueless as when she was twenty, only with a few grey hairs, and crow’s feet around her eyes. She sat down on the edge of the bed and continued to stare at herself. There was nothing about being thirty worth celebrating.
The doorbell rang and Holly could hear the excited chatter of the girls outside. She tried to perk herself up, took a deep breath and plastered a smile on her face.
‘Happy birthday!’ they all yelled in unison.
She stared back at their smiling faces and was immediately cheered by their enthusiasm. She ushered them into the living room and waved hello to the camera being brandished by Declan.
‘No, Holly, you’re supposed to ignore him!’ hissed Denise, and dragged her by the arm onto the couch where they all surrounded her and immediately started thrusting presents in her face.
‘Open mine first!’ squealed Ciara, knocking Sharon out of the way so hard that she toppled off the couch. Sharon froze in horror, unsure of how to react, then burst into giggles.
‘OK, calm down, everyone,’ said the voice of reason (Abbey), struggling to help up a hysterical Sharon. ‘I think we should pop open the bubbly first and then open the pressies.’
‘OK, but as long as she opens mine first,’ pouted Ciara.
‘Ciara, I promise to open yours first.’ Holly spoke as though addressing a child.
Abbey raced into the kitchen and returned with a tray full of champagne flutes.
‘Anyone for champers, sweetie darlings?’
The flutes had been a wedding gift and one of the glasses had Gerry and Holly’s name inscribed on it, which Abbey had tactfully removed from the set. ‘OK, Holly, you can do the honours,’ Abbey said, handing her the bottle.
Everyone ran for cover and ducked as Holly began to remove the cork. ‘Hey, I’m not that bad, everyone!’
‘Yeah, she’s an old pro at this by now,’ said Sharon, appearing from behind the couch with a cushion on her head.
The girls all cheered as they heard the pop and crawled out from their hiding places.
‘The sound of heaven,’ Denise said dramatically, holding her hand up to her heart.
‘OK, now open my present,’ Ciara screamed again.
‘Ciara!’ they all shouted.
‘After the toast,’ added Sharon.
Everyone held up her glass.
‘OK, here’s to my bestest friend in the whole world who has had such a difficult year, but throughout all has been the bravest and the strongest person I’ve ever met. She’s an inspiration to us all. Here’s to her finding happiness for the next thirty years of her life! To Holly!’
‘To Holly,’ they all chorused. Everyone’s eyes were sparkling with tears as they all took sips of their drinks, except of course for Ciara, who had already knocked back her glass of champagne and was scrambling to give her present to Holly.
‘OK, first you have to wear this tiara because you are our princess for the night, and secondly here’s my present from me to you!’
The girls helped Holly put on the sparkling tiara that luckily went perfectly with her glittery corset. At that moment, surrounded by her friends, she really did feel like a princess.
Holly carefully removed the sellotape from the neatly wrapped parcel.
‘Oh, just rip it open,’ said Abbey to everyone’s surprise.
Holly looked at the box inside, confused. ‘What is it?’
‘Read it!’ Ciara said excitedly.
Holly began to read aloud from the box, ‘It’s a battery operated … oh my God! Ciara! You naughty girl!’ Holly and the girls laughed hysterically.
‘Well, I’ll definitely need this,’ Holly laughed, holding the box up to the camera.
Declan looked as if he was about to throw up.
‘Do you like it?’ Ciara asked, searching for approval. ‘I wanted to give it to you at dinner last week but I didn’t think it would be appropriate.’
‘Gosh! Well, I’m glad you saved it till now!’ Holly laughed, giving her sister a hug.
‘OK, me next,’ Abbey said, putting her parcel on Holly’s lap. ‘It’s from me and Jack so don’t expect anything like Ciara’s.’
‘Well, I would worry if Jack gave me something like that,’ Holly said, opening it. ‘Oh, Abbey, it’s beautiful!’ Holly said, holding up the sterling silver-covered photo album.
‘For your new memories,’ Abbey said softly.
‘Oh, it’s perfect,’ Holly said, wrapping her arms round her and squeezing her. ‘Thank you.’
‘OK, well, mine is less sentimental but as a fellow female I’m sure you will appreciate it,’ said Denise, handing her an envelope.
‘Oh, brilliant! I’ve always wanted to go here,’ Holly exclaimed as she opened it. ‘A weekend of pampering at Haven’s health and beauty clinic!’
‘God, you sound like you’re on Blind Date,’ teased Sharon.
‘Let us know when you want to make an appointment, it’s valid for a year, and the rest of us can book the same time. Make a holiday out of it!’
‘Oh, that’s a great idea, Denise. Thank you!’
‘OK, last but not least!’ Holly winked at Sharon. Sharon fidgeted with her hands nervously while she watched Holly’s face.
The present was a large silver photo frame with a photograph of Sharon, Denise and Holly at the Christmas Ball two years ago. ‘Oh, I’m wearing my spensive white dress!’ sobbed Holly playfully.
‘Before it was ruined,’ pointed out Sharon.
‘God, I don’t even remember that being taken!’
‘I don’t even remember being there,’ mumbled Denise.
Holly continued to stare at the photo sadly while she walked over to the fireplace. That had been the last ball that she and Gerry had been to, as he had been too ill to attend last year’s.
‘Well, this will take pride of place,’ Holly announced, walking over to the mantelpiece and placing it beside her wedding photo.
‘OK, girls, let’s get some serious drinking done!’ screamed Ciara, and everyone dived to safety as another bottle of champagne was popped open.
Two bottles of champagne and several of red wine later the girls stumbled out of the house and piled into a taxi. Through the hilarity and shouting, someone managed to explain to the taxi driver where they were going. Holly insisted on sitting in the passenger seat and having a heart-to-heart with Nick, the driver, who probably wanted to kill her by the time they reached town.
‘Bye, Nick!’ they all shouted to their new best friend before falling out onto the kerb, where they watched him drive off at high speed. They had decided (while drinking their third bottle of wine) to chance their luck at Dublin’s most stylish club, Boudoir. The club was reserved for the rich and famous only, and it was a well-known fact that if you weren’t either, you then had to have a membership card to be granted access. Denise walked up to the door coolly waving her video store membership card in the bouncer’s faces. Amazingly, they stopped her.
The only famous faces the girls saw overtaking them to enter the club, as they fought with the bouncers to get in, were some newsreaders from the national TV station, whom Denise smiled at and hilariously kept repeating, ‘Good evening,’ very seriously to their faces. Unfortunately, after that Holly remembered no more.
Holly awoke with her head pounding. Her mouth was as dry as Gandhi’s sandal and her vision was impaired. She leaned up on one elbow and tried to open her eyes, which were somehow glued together. She squinted around. It was bright, very bright, and the room seemed to be spinning. Something very odd was going on. Holly caught sight of herself in the mirror ahead and startled herself. Had she been in an accident last night? She ran out of energy and collapsed flat on her back again. Suddenly the house alarm began wailing and she lifted her head slightly from the pillow and opened one eye. Oh, take whatever you want, she thought, just as long as you bring me a glass of water before you go. After a while she realised it wasn’t the alarm but the phone ringing beside her bed.
‘Hello?’ she croaked.
‘Oh good, I’m not the only one,’ said a desperately ill-sounding voice on the other end.
‘Who are you?’ croaked Holly again.
‘My name is Sharon, I think,’ came the reply, ‘although don’t ask me who Sharon is because I don’t know. The man beside me in bed seems to think I know him.’
Holly heard John laughing loudly in the background.
‘Sharon, what happened last night? Please enlighten me.’
‘Alcohol happened,’ said Sharon drowsily, ‘lots and lots of alcohol.’
‘Any other information?’
‘Know what time it is?’
‘Why are you ringing me at this hour of the morning?’
‘It’s the afternoon, Holly.’
‘Oh. How did that happen?’
‘Gravity or something. I was out that day from school.’
‘Oh God, I think I’m dying.’
‘I think I’ll just go back to sleep. Maybe when I wake up the ground will have stopped moving.’
‘Good idea. Oh, and, Holly, welcome to the thirties club.’
Holly groaned. ‘I have not started as I mean to go on. From now on I will be a sensible, mature thirty-year-old woman.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I said too. Good night.’
‘Night.’ Seconds later Holly was asleep. She awoke at various stages during the day to answer the phone, the conversations all seeming part of her dreams. And she made many trips to the kitchen for water to rehydrate herself.
Eventually, at nine o’clock that night, Holly succumbed to her stomach’s screaming demands for food. As usual there was nothing in the fridge so she decided to treat herself to a Chinese takeaway. She sat snuggled up on the couch in her pyjamas watching the very best of Saturday night TV while stuffing her face. After the trauma of being without Gerry for her birthday the previous day, Holly was surprised to notice that she felt very content with herself. It was the first time since Gerry died that she was comfortable with her own company. There was a slight chance she could make it without him.
Later that night Jack called her on her mobile. ‘Hey, sis, what are you doing?’
‘Watching TV, having Chinese,’ she said.
‘Well, you sound in good form. Unlike my poor girlfriend, who’s suffering here beside me.’
‘I’m never going out with you again, Holly,’ she heard Abbey scream weakly in the background.
‘You and your friends perverted her mind,’ he joked.
‘Don’t blame me. She was doing just fine all by herself as far as I remember.’
‘She says she can’t remember anything.’
‘Neither can I. Maybe it’s something that happens as soon as you hit thirty. I was never like this before.’
‘Or maybe it’s just an evil plan you all hatched so you wouldn’t have to tell us what you got up to.’
‘I wish it was … Oh, thanks for the pressie by the way, it’s beautiful.’
‘Glad you like it. It took me ages to find the right one.’
He laughed. ‘Anyway, I was ringing to ask you if you’re going to Declan’s gig tomorrow night.’
‘Where is it?’
‘No way. There is no way I’m ever setting foot in a pub again, especially to listen to some loud rock band with screeching guitars and noisy drums,’ Holly told him.
‘Oh, it’s the old, “I’m never drinking again” excuse, is it? Well, don’t drink then. Please come, Holly. Declan’s really excited about it and no one else will come.’
‘Ha! So I’m the last resort, am I? Nice to know you think so highly of me.’
‘No, you’re not. Declan would love to see you there and we hardly got a chance to talk at dinner. We haven’t gone out for ages,’ he pleaded.
‘Well, we’re hardly going to have a heart-to-heart with the Orgasmic Fish banging out their tunes,’ she said sarcastically.
‘They’re actually called Black Strawberries now, which has a much sweeter ring to it, I think,’ he laughed.
Holly held her head in her hands and groaned, ‘Oh, please don’t make me go, Jack.’
‘OK, but I’m not staying for the whole thing.’
‘We can discuss that when we get there. Declan will be chuffed when I tell him; the family never usually goes to these things.’
‘OK then, about eight-ish?’
Holly hung up and sat stuck to the couch for another few hours. She felt so full, she couldn’t move. Maybe that Chinese hadn’t been such a good idea after all.
Holly arrived in Hogan’s pub feeling a lot fresher than the day before, but her reactions were still a little slower than usual. Her hangovers seemed to be getting worse as she got older, and yesterday took the gold medal for the hangover of all hangovers. She had gone for a long walk along the coast from Malahide to Portmarnock earlier that day, and the crisp fresh breeze had helped to clear her fuzzy head. She had called in to her parents for Sunday dinner, when they presented her with a beautiful Waterford Crystal vase for her birthday. It had been a wonderful relaxing day and she almost had to drag herself off the comfortable couch to go to Hogan’s.
Hogan’s was a popular three-storey building situated in the centre of town, and even on a Sunday the place was jammed. The first floor was a trendy nightclub that played all the latest music from the charts. It was where the young beautiful people went to show off their latest fashions. The ground floor was a traditional Irish pub for the older crowd (usually containing old men perched up on their bar stools, bent over their pints, contemplating life). A few nights a week there was a traditional Irish music band that played all the old favourites, which was popular with the young and old. The basement, where bands usually played, was dark and dingy, and the clientele was purely students. Holly seemed to be the oldest person in there. The bar consisted of a tiny counter in the corner of the long hall and was surrounded by a huge crowd of young students dressed in scruffy jeans and ripped T-shirts, pushing each other violently in order to be served. The bar staff also looked as if they should be in school, and were rushing around at a hundred miles per hour with sweat dripping from their faces.
The basement was stuffy, with no ventilation or air conditioning at all, and Holly was finding it difficult to breathe in the smoky air. Practically everyone around her seemed to be smoking and her eyes were already stinging. She dreaded to think what it might be like in an hour’s time.
She waved at Declan to let him know she was there but decided not to make her way over as he was surrounded by a crowd of girls. She didn’t want to cramp his style. Holly had missed out on the whole student scene when she was younger. She had decided not to go to college after school and instead begun working as a secretary, moving from job to job every few months, ending with the awful job she had left so she could spend time with Gerry while he was sick. She doubted she would have stayed in it that much longer anyway. Gerry had studied Marketing at Dublin City University but he never socialised much with his college friends. Instead he chose to go out with Holly, Sharon and John, Denise and whoever she was with at the time. Looking around at everyone, Holly didn’t feel that she had missed anything special.
Finally Declan managed to tear himself away from his female fans and made his way over to Holly.
‘Well, hello, Mr Popular. I feel privileged you chose me to speak to next.’ All the girls stared Holly up and down and wondered what the hell Declan saw in this older woman.
Declan laughed and rubbed his hands together cheekily. ‘I know! This band business is great. Looks like I’ll be getting a bit of action tonight,’ he said cockily.
‘As your sister it’s always a pleasure to be informed of that,’ Holly replied sarcastically. She was finding it impossible to maintain a conversation with Declan as he refused eye contact with her and instead was scouring the crowds.
‘OK, Declan, just go, why don’t you, and flirt with these beauties instead of being stuck here with your old sister?’
‘Oh no, it’s not that,’ he said defensively. ‘It’s just that we were told there might be a record company guy coming to see us play tonight.’
‘Oh, cool!’ Holly’s eyes widened with excitement. This obviously meant a lot to her brother and she felt guilty for never taking an interest in it before. She glanced around and tried to spot someone who might be a record company person. What would they look like? It’s not as if they would be sitting in the corner with a notebook scribbling furiously. Finally her eyes fell upon a man who seemed much older than the rest of the crowd, more her own age. He was dressed in a black leather jacket, black slacks and a black T-shirt, and stood with his hands on his hips staring at the stage. Yes, he was definitely a record company guy. He had stubble all around his jaw and looked like he hadn’t been to bed for days. He probably smelled bad as well. Or else he was just a weirdo who liked to go to student nights and ogle all the young girls. Also a possibility.
‘Over there, Deco!’ Holly raised her voice over the noise and pointed at the man.
Declan looked excited and his eyes followed to where her finger pointed. His smile faded as he obviously recognised the man. ‘No, it’s just DANNY!’ he yelled, and wolf-whistled to grab the guy’s attention.
Danny twirled round, trying to find his caller, nodded his head in recognition and made his way over.
‘Hey, man,’ Declan said, shaking his hand.
‘Hi, Declan, how are you set?’ The man looked stressed.
‘Yeah, OK,’ Declan nodded unenthusiastically. Somebody must have told Declan that acting like you didn’t care was cool.
‘Sound check go OK?’
‘There were a few problems but we sorted them out.’
‘So everything’s OK?’
‘Good.’ His face relaxed and he turned to face Holly. ‘Sorry for ignoring you there. I’m Daniel.’
‘Nice to meet you. I’m Holly.’
‘Oh, sorry,’ Declan interrupted. ‘Holly, this is the owner; Daniel, this is my sister.’
‘Sister? Wow you look nothing alike.’
‘Thank God,’ Holly mouthed to Daniel so Declan couldn’t see, and he laughed.
‘Hey, Deco, we’re on!’ yelled a blue-haired boy at him.
‘See you two later,’ and Declan ran off.
‘Good luck!’ yelled Holly after him. ‘So you’re a Hogan,’ she said, turning to face Daniel.
‘Well, no, actually I’m a Connolly,’ he smiled. ‘I just took over the place a few weeks ago.’
‘Oh.’ Holly was surprised. ‘I didn’t know they’d sold it. So are you going to change it to Connolly’s then?’
‘Can’t afford all the lettering on the front. It’s a bit long.’
Holly laughed. ‘Well, everyone knows the name Hogan’s at this stage; it would probably be stupid to change it.’
Daniel nodded in agreement. ‘That was the main reason, actually.’
Suddenly Jack appeared at the main entrance and Holly waved him over. ‘I’m so sorry I’m late. Did I miss anything?’ he said, giving her a hug and a kiss.
‘Nope, he’s just about to go on now. Jack, this is Daniel, the owner.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ Daniel said, shaking his hand.
‘Are they any good?’ Jack asked him, nodding his head in the direction of the stage.
‘To tell you the truth, I’ve never even heard them play,’ Daniel said worriedly.
‘That was brave of you!’ laughed Jack.
‘I hope not too brave,’ he said, turning to face the front as the boys took to the stage.
‘I recognise a few faces here,’ Jack said, scanning the crowd. ‘Most of them are under eighteen as well.’
A young girl dressed in ripped jeans and a belly top walked slowly by Jack with an unsure smile on her face. She placed her finger over her lip. Jack smiled and nodded back.
Holly looked at Jack questioningly. ‘What was that about?’
‘Oh, I teach her English. She’s only sixteen or seventeen. She’s a good girl, though.’ Jack stared after her as she walked by, then added, ‘But she’d better not be late for class tomorrow.’
Holly watched the girl down a pint with her friends, wishing she had had a teacher at school like Jack; all the students seemed to love him. And it was easy to see why: he was a lovable kind of person. ‘Well, don’t tell him they’re under eighteen,’ Holly said under her breath, nodding in the direction of Daniel.
The crowd cheered and Declan took on his moody persona as he lifted his guitar strap over his shoulder. The music started and after that there was no chance of carrying on any kind of conversation. The crowd began to jump up and down, and once too often Holly’s foot was stomped on. Jack just looked at her and laughed, amused at her obvious discomfort.
‘CAN I GET YOU TWO A DRINK?’ Daniel yelled, making a drinking motion with his hand. Jack asked for a pint of Budweiser while Holly settled for a 7-Up. They watched Daniel battle through the moshing crowd and climb behind the bar to fix the drinks. He returned minutes later with their glasses and a stool for Holly. She and Jack turned their attention back to the stage and watched their brother perform. The music really wasn’t Holly’s type of thing, and it was so loud and noisy it was difficult for her to tell if they were actually any good. It was a far cry from the soothing sounds of her favourite Westlife CD.
After four songs Holly had had enough, and gave Jack a hug and a kiss goodbye. ‘TELL DECLAN I STAYED TILL THE END!’ she yelled. ‘NICE MEETING YOU, DANIEL! THANKS FOR THE DRINK!’ she screamed, and made her way back to civilisation and cool fresh air.
Her ears continued to ring all the way home in the car. It was ten o’clock by the time she got there. Only two more hours till May. And that meant she could open another envelope.
Holly sat at her kitchen table nervously drumming her fingers on the wood. She gulped back her third cup of coffee and uncrossed her legs. Staying awake for just two more hours had proved more difficult than she’d anticipated; she was obviously still tired from overindulging at her party the night before last. She tapped her feet under the table with no particular rhythm, and then crossed her legs again. It was eleven thirty. She had the envelope on the table in front of her and she could almost see it sticking its tongue out and singing ‘Nah nah na-nah nah.’
She picked it up and ran her hands over it. Who would know if she opened it early? Sharon and John had probably forgotten there was even an envelope for May, and Denise was no doubt conked out after the stress of her two-day hangover. Holly could just as easily lie if they ever asked her, but then again they probably wouldn’t even care. No one would know and no one would care.
But that wasn’t true.
Gerry would know.
Each time Holly held the envelopes in her hand she felt a connection with Gerry. The last two times she’d opened them she’d felt as though Gerry were sitting right beside her and laughing at her reactions. She felt as if they were playing a game together, even though they were in two different worlds. But she could feel him, and he would know if she cheated, he would know if she disobeyed the rules of their game.
After another cup of coffee Holly was bouncing off the walls. The small hand of the clock seemed to be auditioning for a part in Baywatch with its slow-motion run around the dial, but eventually it struck midnight. Once again she slowly turned the envelope over and treasured every moment of the process. Gerry sat opposite her at the table. ‘Go on: open it!’
She carefully tore open the seal and ran her fingers along it, knowing the last thing that touched this was Gerry’s tongue. She slid the card out of its pouch and opened it.
Go on, disco diva! Face your fear of karaoke at Club Diva this month, and you never know, you might be rewarded …
PS. I love you …
She felt Gerry watching her and the corners of her lips lifted into a smile. She began to laugh, repeating, ‘NO WAY!’ whenever she caught her breath. Finally she calmed down and announced to the room, ‘Gerry! You bastard! There is absolutely no way I am going through with this!’
Gerry laughed louder.
‘This is not funny. You know how I feel about karaoke, and I refuse to do it. Nope. No way. Not doing it.’
‘You have to do it, you know,’ laughed Gerry.
‘I do not have to do this!’
‘Do it for me.’
‘I am not doing it for you, for me or for world peace. I hate karaoke!’
‘Do it for me,’ he repeated.
The sound of the phone caused Holly to jump in her seat.
It was Sharon. ‘OK, it’s five past twelve, what did it say? John and I are dying to know!’
‘What makes you think I opened it?’
‘Ha!’ Sharon snorted. ‘Twenty years of friendship qualifies me as an expert; now come on, tell us what it says.’
‘I’m not doing it,’ Holly stated bluntly.
‘What? You’re not telling us?’
‘No, I’m not doing what he wants me to do.’
‘Why, what is it?’
‘Oh, just Gerry’s pathetic attempt at being humorous,’ she snapped at the ceiling.
‘I’m intrigued now,’ Sharon said. ‘Tell us.’
‘Holly, spill the beans, what is it?’ John was on the downstairs phone.
‘OK … Gerry wants me … to … singatakaraoke,’ she rushed out.
‘Huh? Holly, we didn’t understand a word you said,’ Sharon gave out.
‘No, I did,’ interrupted John. ‘I think I heard something about karaoke. Am I right?’
‘Yes,’ Holly replied.
‘And do you have to sing?’ enquired Sharon.
‘Ye-eess,’ she replied slowly. Maybe if she didn’t say it, it wouldn’t have to happen.
The others burst out laughing so loud, Holly had to remove the phone from her ear. ‘Phone me back when the two of you shut up,’ she said angrily, hanging up.
A few minutes later they called back.
She heard Sharon snort down the phone, relapse into a fit of the giggles and then the line went dead.
Ten minutes later she phoned back.
‘OK.’ Sharon had an overly serious ‘let’s get down to business’ tone in her voice. ‘I’m sorry about that, I’m fine now. Don’t look at me, John,’ she said away from the phone. ‘I’m sorry, Holly, but I just kept thinking about the last time you—’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ Holly interrupted, ‘you don’t need to bring it back up. It was the most embarrassing day of my life so I just happen to remember it. That’s why I’m not doing it.’
‘Oh, Holly, you can’t let a stupid thing like that put you off!’
‘Well, if that wouldn’t put a person off, then they’re clinically insane!’
‘Holly, it was only a little fall …’
‘Yes, thank you! I remember it just fine! Anyway, I can’t even sing, Sharon; I think I established that fact marvellously the last time!’
Sharon was very quiet.
‘Sharon, you still there?’
There was no answer.
‘Sharon, are you laughing?’ Holly gave out.
Holly heard a little squeak and the line went dead.
‘What wonderfully supportive friends I have,’ she muttered under her breath.
‘Oh, Gerry!’ she yelled. ‘I thought you were supposed to be helping me, not turning me into a nervous wreck!’
She got very little sleep that night.
‘Happy birthday, Holly! Or should I say Happy belated birthday?’ Richard laughed nervously. Holly’s mouth dropped open in shock at the sight of her older brother standing on her doorstep. This was a rare occurrence; in fact it may even have been a first. She opened and closed her mouth like a goldfish, completely unsure what to say.
‘I brought you a potted mini phalaenopsis orchid,’ he said, handing her a plant. ‘They have been shipped fresh, budding and are ready to bloom.’ He sounded like an advertisement.
Holly was even more stunned. She fingered the tiny pink buds. ‘Gosh, Richard, orchids are my favourite!’
‘Well, you have a nice big garden here anyway, nice and …’ he cleared his throat, ‘green. Bit overgrown, though …’ he trailed off and began that annoying rocking thing he did with his feet.
‘Would you like to come in or are you just passing through?’ Please say no, please say no. Despite the thoughtful gift, Holly was in no mood for Richard’s company.
‘Well, yes, I’ll come in for a little while so.’ He wiped his feet for a good two minutes at the door before stepping into the house. He reminded Holly of her old maths teacher at school, dressed in a brown knitted cardigan with brown trousers that stopped just at the top of his neat little brown loafers. He hadn’t a hair on his head out of place and his fingernails were clean and perfectly manicured. Holly could imagine him measuring them with a little ruler every night to see that they didn’t outgrow the required European standard length for fingernails, if such a thing existed.
Richard never seemed comfortable in his own skin. He looked as if he was being choked to death by his tightly knotted (brown) tie, and he always walked as if he had a barge pole shoved up his backside. On the rare occasions that he smiled, the smile never quite managed to reach his eyes. He was the drill sergeant of his own body, screaming at it and punishing himself every time he lapsed into human mode. The sad thing was that he thought he was better off than everyone else for it. Holly led him into the living room and placed the ceramic pot on top of the TV for the time being.
‘No, no, Holly,’ Richard said, wagging a finger at her as though she was a naughty child, ‘you shouldn’t put it there. It needs to be in a cool, draught-free location away from harsh sunlight and heat vents.’
‘Oh, of course.’ Holly picked the pot back up and searched around the room in panic for a suitable place. What had he said? A draught-free, warm location? How did he always manage to make her feel like an incompetent little girl?
‘How about that little table in the centre? It should be safe there.’
Holly did as she was told and placed the pot on the table, half expecting him to say ‘good girl’. Thankfully he didn’t.
Richard took his favourite position at the fireplace and surveyed the room. ‘Your house is very clean,’ he commented.
‘Thank you. I just, eh … cleaned it.’
He nodded as if he already knew.
‘Can I get you a tea or a coffee?’ she asked, expecting him to say no.
‘Yes, great,’ he said, clapping his hands together. ‘Tea would be splendid. Just milk no sugar.’
Holly returned from the kitchen with two mugs of tea and placed them down on the coffee table. She hoped the steam rising from the mugs wouldn’t murder the poor plant. It being a heat vent and all.
‘You just need to water it regularly and feed it during the spring months.’ He was still talking about the plant. Holly nodded, knowing full well she would not do either of those things.
‘I didn’t know you had green fingers, Richard,’ she said, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
‘Only when I’m painting with the children,’ he laughed, cracking a rare joke.
‘Do you do much work in your garden?’ Holly was anxious to keep the conversation flowing; as the house was so quiet every silence was amplified.
‘Oh, yes, I love to work in the garden.’ His eyes lit up. ‘Saturdays are my garden days,’ he said, smiling into his mug of tea.
Holly felt as though a complete stranger was sitting beside her. She realised she knew very little about her brother and he equally knew very little about her. But that was the way Richard had always liked to keep things. He had distanced himself from the family even when they were younger. He never shared exciting news with them or even told them how his day went. He was just full of facts, facts and more facts. The first time the family had even heard of Meredith was the day they both came over for dinner to announce their engagement. Unfortunately, by that stage it was too late to convince him not to marry the flame-haired, green-eyed dragon. Not that he would have listened, anyway.
‘So,’ she announced far too loudly for the echoing room, ‘anything strange or startling?’ Like why are you here?
‘No, no, nothing strange. Everything is ticking over as normal.’ He took a sip of tea, then a while later added, ‘Nothing startling either, for that matter. I just thought I would pop in and say hello while I was in the area.’
‘Ah, right. It’s unusual for you to be over this side of the city,’ Holly laughed. ‘What brings you to the dark and dangerous world of the north side?’
‘Oh, you know, just a little business,’ he mumbled to himself. ‘But my car’s parked on the other side of the river, of course!’
Holly forced a smile.
‘Just joking,’ he added. ‘It’s just outside the house … It will be safe won’t it?’ he asked seriously.
‘I think it should be OK,’ Holly said. ‘There doesn’t seem to be anyone suspicious hanging around the cul-de-sac in broad daylight today.’ Her humour was lost on him. ‘How’s Emily and Timmy – sorry, I mean Timothy?’ An honest mistake for once.
Richard’s eyes lit up, ‘Oh, they’re good, Holly, very good. Worrying, though.’ He looked away and surveyed her living room.
‘What do you mean?’ Holly asked, thinking that perhaps Richard may open up to her.
‘Oh, there isn’t one thing in particular, Holly. Children are a worry in general.’ He pushed the rim of his glasses up his nose and looked her in the eye. ‘But I suppose you’re glad you will never have to worry about all this children nonsense,’ he said, laughing.
There was a silence.
Holly felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach.
‘So have you found a job yet?’ he continued on.
Holly sat frozen on her chair in shock. She couldn’t believe he had had the audacity to say that to her. She was insulted and hurt and she wanted him out of her house. She really wasn’t in the mood to be polite to him any more, and certainly couldn’t be bothered explaining to his narrow little mind that she hadn’t even begun looking for a job yet as she was still grieving the death of her spouse – ‘nonsense’ that he wouldn’t have to experience for another fifty years or so.
‘No,’ she spat out.
‘So what are you doing for money? Have you signed on the dole?’
‘No, Richard,’ she said, trying not to lose her temper. ‘I haven’t signed on the dole. I get widow’s allowance.’
‘Ah, that’s a great, handy thing, isn’t it?’
‘Handy is not quite the word I would use. Devastatingly depressing is more like it.’
The atmosphere was tense. Suddenly he slapped his leg with his hand, signalling the end of the conversation. ‘I better motor on so and get back to work,’ he announced, standing up and exaggerating a stretch as though he had been sitting down for hours.
‘OK then,’ Holly was relieved. ‘You better leave while your car is still there.’
Once again her humour was lost on him as he was peering out the window to check.
‘You’re right; it’s still there, thank God. Anyway, nice to see you and thank you for the tea.’
‘You’re welcome, and thank you for the orchid,’ Holly said through gritted teeth.
He marched down the garden path and stopped midway to look at the garden. He nodded his head disapprovingly and shouted to her, ‘You really must get someone to sort this mess out,’ and drove off in his brown family car.
Holly fumed as she watched him drive away, and banged the door shut. That man made her blood boil so much she felt like knocking him out. He just hadn’t a clue … about anything.
‘Oh, Sharon, I just hate him,’ Holly moaned to her friend on the phone later that night.
‘Just ignore him, Holly. He can’t help himself, he’s an idiot,’ she replied angrily.
‘But that’s what annoys me even more. Everyone says he can’t help himself or it’s not his fault, but he’s a grown man, Sharon. He’s thirty-six years old. He should bloody well know when to keep his mouth shut. He says those things deliberately,’ Holly fumed.
‘I really don’t think he does, Holly,’ Sharon said soothingly. ‘I genuinely think he called round to wish you a happy birthday …’
‘Yeah! And what’s that about?’ Holly ranted. ‘Since when has he ever called round to my house to give me a birthday present? NEVER! That’s when!’
‘Well, thirty is more of a big deal than any other—’
‘Not in his eyes it’s not! He even said so at dinner the other day. If I recall, his exact words were,’ she mimicked his voice, ‘I don’t agree with silly celebrations blah blah blah I’m a sap blah blah blah. He really is a Dick.’
Sharon laughed at her friend sounding like a ten-year-old. ‘OK, so he’s an evil monster of a being who deserves to burn in hell!’
Holly paused. ‘Well, I wouldn’t go that far, Sharon …’
Sharon laughed. ‘Oh, I just can’t please you at all, can I?’
Holly smiled weakly. Gerry would know exactly how she was feeling, he would know exactly what to say and exactly what to do. He would give her one of his famous hugs and all her problems would melt away. She grabbed a pillow from her bed and hugged it tight. She couldn’t remember the last time she had hugged someone, really hugged someone. And the depressing thing was that she couldn’t imagine ever embracing anyone the same way again.
‘Helloooo? Earth to Holly? You still there or am I talking to myself again?
‘Oh, sorry, Sharon, what did you say?’
‘I said have you given any more thought to this karaoke business?’
‘Sharon!’ Holly yelped. ‘No more thought is required on that subject.’
‘OK, calm down, woman! I was just thinking that we could hire a karaoke machine and set it up in your living room. That way, you’ll be doing what he wants minus the embarrassment! What do you think?’
‘No, Sharon, it’s a great idea but it won’t work; he wants me to do it in Club Diva, wherever that is.’
‘Ah! So sweet! Because you’re his disco diva?’
‘I think that was the general idea,’ Holly said miserably.
‘Ah! That’s a lovely idea, although Club Diva? Never heard of it.’
‘Well, that’s that settled then. If no one knows where it is, then I just can’t do it, can I?’ Holly said, satisfied she had found a way out.
They both said their goodbyes but as soon as Holly had hung up, the phone rang again.
‘Mum!’ Holly said accusingly.
‘Oh God, what have I done now?’
‘I received a little visit from your evil son today and I’m not very happy.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, dear, I tried to call you earlier to tell you he was on his way over but I kept getting that bloody answering machine. Do you ever turn your phone on?’
‘That is not the point, Mum.’
‘I know, I’m sorry. Why, what did he do?’
‘He opened his mouth. There lies the problem in itself.’
‘Oh no, and he was so excited about giving you that present.’
‘Well, I’m not denying the fact that the present was very nice and thoughtful but he said some of the most insulting things without batting an eyelid!’
‘Do you want me to talk to him for you?’
‘No, it’s OK; we’re big boys and girls now. But thanks, anyway. So what are you up to?’ Holly was anxious to change the subject.
‘Ciara and I are watching a Denzel Washington film. Ciara thinks she’s going to marry him someday,’ Elizabeth laughed.
‘I am too!’ Ciara shouted in the background.
‘Well, sorry to burst her little bubble but tell her he’s already married.’
‘He’s married, honey,’ Elizabeth passed on the message.
‘Hollywood marriages …’ Ciara mumbled.
‘Are the two of you on your own?’ Holly asked.
‘Frank is down the pub and Declan is at college.’
‘College? But it’s ten o’clock at night!’ Holly laughed. Declan was probably out somewhere doing something illegal and using college as an excuse. She didn’t think her mum would be so gullible to believe that line, especially after having four other children.
‘Oh, he’s a very hard worker when he puts his mind to it, Holly. He’s working on some project. I don’t know what it is; I don’t listen half the time.’
‘Mmm,’ Holly replied, not believing a word of it.
‘Anyway, my future son-in-law is back on television so I must be off,’ Elizabeth laughed. ‘Would you like to come round and join us?’
‘Thanks but no, I’m OK here.’
‘All right, love, but if you change your mind you know where we are. Bye, dear.’
Back to her empty, silent house.
Holly woke up the next morning still fully dressed and lying on her bed. She could feel herself slipping into her old habits again. All her positive thoughts of the past few weeks were melting away bit by bit every day. It was so bloody tiring trying to be happy all the time and she just didn’t have the energy any more. Who cared if the house was a mess? Nobody but she was going to see it, and she certainly didn’t care one way or the other. Who cared if she didn’t wear make-up or wash for a week? She had no intention of impressing anyone. The only guy she was seeing regularly was the pizza delivery boy, and she even had to tip him to make him smile. Who bloody cared?
Her phone vibrated beside her, signalling a text message. It was from Sharon.
Club Diva no 36700700
Think bout it. Wud b fun.
Do it 4 Gerry?
Gerry’s bloody dead, she felt like texting back. But ever since she had begun opening the envelopes he didn’t feel dead to her. It was as though he was just away on holiday and he was writing her letters so he wasn’t really gone. Well, the very least she could do was ring the club and suss out the situation. That didn’t mean she had to go through with it.
She dialled the number and a man answered. She couldn’t think of anything to say and quickly hung up again. Oh, come on, Holly, she told herself, it’s really not that difficult. Just say a friend is interested in singing.
Holly braced herself and pressed redial.
The same voice answered, ‘Club Diva.’
‘Hi, I was wondering if you do karaoke nights there?’
‘Yes, we do. They are on a …’ she heard him leafing through some pages, ‘yeah, sorry, they’re on a Thursday.’
‘No, sorry, sorry, hold on …’ He leafed through some pages again. ‘No, they’re on a Tuesday night.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, they are definitely on a Tuesday.’
‘OK, em, well, I was wondering if, em …’ Holly took a deep breath and began the sentence again. ‘My friend might be interested in singing and she was wondering what she would have to do?’
There was a long pause on the other end.
‘Hello?’ Was this person stupid?
‘Yeah, sorry, I don’t actually organise the karaoke nights so …’
‘OK.’ Holly was losing her temper. It had taken a lot to summon up the courage to actually make the call and some underqualified unhelpful little twit wasn’t going to ruin it for her. ‘Well, is there anyone there who might have a clue?’
‘Eh, no, there isn’t. The club isn’t actually open yet. It’s very early in the morning still,’ came the sarcastic response.
‘Well, thank you very much. You’ve been a terrific help,’ she matched his sarcasm.
‘Excuse me, if you can just bear with me for a moment, I’ll try and find out for you.’ Holly was put on hold and was forced to listen to ‘Greensleeves’ for the next five minutes.
‘Hello? Are you still there?’
‘Barely,’ she said angrily.
‘OK, I’m very sorry about the delay but I just made a phone call there. What’s your friend’s name?’
Holly froze; she hadn’t planned on this. Well, maybe she could just give her name and then get ‘her friend’ to call back and cancel if she changed her mind.
‘Em, her name is Holly Kennedy.’
‘OK, well, it’s actually a karaoke competition on Tuesday nights. It goes on for a month and every week two people out of ten are chosen till the last week of the month, where the six people sing again in the final.’
Holly gulped and felt butterflies in her tummy. She didn’t want to do this.
‘But unfortunately,’ he continued, ‘the names have all been entered a few months in advance so you can tell your friend that maybe she could try again at Christmas. That’s when the next competition is on.’
‘By the way, the name Holly Kennedy rings a bell. Would that be Declan Kennedy’s sister?’
‘Eh, yeah. Why, do you know her?’ asked a shocked Holly.
‘I wouldn’t say I know her I just met her briefly here the other night with her brother.’
Was Declan going around introducing girls as his sister? The sick and twisted little … No, that couldn’t be right.
‘Declan played a gig in Club Diva?’
‘No, no,’ the man laughed, ‘he played with his band downstairs in the basement.’
Holly quickly digested the information until the facts finally clicked in place.
‘Is Club Diva in Hogan’s?’
He laughed again. ‘Yeah, it’s on the top floor. Maybe I should advertise a bit more!’
‘Is that Daniel?’ Holly blurted out and then kicked herself for being so stupid.
‘Eh, yeah, do I know you?’
‘Em, no! No, you don’t! Holly just mentioned you in conversation, that’s all.’ Then she realised how that sounded. ‘Very briefly in conversation,’ she added. ‘She said you gave her a stool.’ Holly began hitting her head softly against the wall.
Daniel laughed again. ‘Oh, OK, well, tell her if she wants to sing in the karaoke at Christmas I can put her name down now for it. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people that want to sign up.’
‘Really?’ Holly said weakly. She felt like a fool.
‘Oh, by the way, who am I speaking to?’
Holly paced her bedroom floor. ‘Em, Sharon. You’re speaking to Sharon.’
‘OK, Sharon, well, I have your number on caller ID so I’ll call you if anyone backs out.’
‘OK, thanks a lot.’
And he hung up.
Holly leaped into bed, throwing the duvet over her head as she felt her face burn with embarrassment. She hid under the covers, cursing herself for being such a bimbo. Ignoring the phone ringing, she tried to convince herself she hadn’t been a complete idiot. Eventually, after she had persuaded herself she could show her face in public again (it took a long time) she crawled out of bed and hit the button on her answering machine. The electronic voice announced she had one message.
‘Hi, Sharon, I must have just missed you. It’s Daniel here from Club Diva,’ he paused and then, laughing, added, ‘in Hogan’s. Em, I was just looking through the list of names in the book and it seems somebody already entered Holly’s name a few months back. In fact it’s one of the first entries. Unless it’s another Holly Kennedy …’ he trailed off. ‘Anyway, call me back when you get a chance so we can sort it out. Thanks.’
Holly sat shocked on the edge of her bed, unable to move.
Sharon, Denise and Holly sat by the window in Bewley’s café overlooking Grafton Street. They often met up there to watch the world go by. Sharon always said it was the best window shopping she could ever do as she had a bird’s-eye view of all her favourite stores.
‘I can’t believe Gerry organised all this!’ gasped Denise when she heard the news.
‘It’ll be a bit of fun, won’t it?’ Sharon said excitedly.
‘Oh God.’ Holly had butterflies in her stomach just at the thought of it. ‘I still really, really, really don’t want to do it but I feel I have to finish off what Gerry started.’
‘That’s the spirit, Hol!’ cheered Denise. ‘And we’ll all be there to cheer you on!’
‘Now hold on a minute, Denise,’ Holly said, dampening the celebratory tone, ‘I just want you and Sharon there, no one else. I don’t want to make a big deal out of this at all. Let’s keep it between us.’
‘But, Holly!’ Sharon protested. ‘It is a big deal! No one ever thought you’d do karaoke again after last time …’
‘Sharon!’ warned Holly. ‘One must not speak of such things. One is still scarred from that experience.’
‘Well, I think one is a daft cow for not getting over it,’ mumbled Sharon.
‘So when’s the big night?’ Denise changed the subject, sensing bad vibes.
‘Next Tuesday,’ Holly groaned, bending forward and banging her head playfully on the table repeatedly. The surrounding tables of customers stared at her curiously.
‘She’s just out for the day,’ Sharon announced to the room, pointing at Holly.
‘Don’t worry, Holly; that gives you seven days exactly to transform yourself into Mariah Carey. No problem at all,’ Denise said, smiling at Sharon.
‘Oh, please, we would have a better chance teaching Lennox Lewis how to do ballet,’ said Sharon.
Holly looked up from banging her head, ‘Well, thanks for the encouragement, Sharon.’
‘Ooh, but imagine Lennox Lewis in a pair of tights, that tight little arse dancing around …’ Denise said dreamily.
Holly and Sharon stopped growling at each other to stare at their friend.
‘You’ve lost the plot, Denise.’
‘What?’ Denise said defensively, snapping out of her fantasy. ‘Just imagine those big muscular thighs …’
‘That would snap your neck in two if you went near him,’ Sharon finished for her.
‘Now there’s a thought,’ Denise said, widening her eyes.
‘I can see it all now,’ Holly joined in, staring off into space. ‘The deaths column would read: “Denise Hennessey, tragically died after being crushed to death by the most tremendous thunder thighs after briefly catching a glimpse of heaven …”’
‘I like that,’ she agreed. ‘Ooh, and what a way to die! Give me a slice of that heaven!’
‘OK, you,’ Sharon interrupted, pointing her finger at Denise, ‘keep your sordid little fantasies to yourself, please. And you,’ she pointed at Holly, ‘stop trying to change the subject.’
‘Oh, you’re just jealous, Sharon, because your husband couldn’t snap a matchstick between his skinny little thighs,’ teased Denise.
‘Excuse me, but John’s thighs are perfectly fine. I just wish mine could be more like his,’ Sharon finished.
‘Now you,’ Denise pointed at Sharon, ‘keep your sordid little fantasies to yourself.’
‘Girls, girls!’ Holly snapped her fingers in the air. ‘Let’s focus on me now, focus on me,’ she gracefully motioned with her hands, bringing them towards her chest.
‘OK, Ms Selfish, what are you planning on singing?’
‘I have no idea, that’s why I called this emergency meeting.’
‘No, it’s not, you told me you wanted to go shopping,’ Sharon said.
‘Oh, really?’ Denise looked at Sharon and raised an eyebrow. ‘I thought you were both coming to visit me on my lunch break.’
‘You are both correct,’ Holly asserted. ‘I am shopping for ideas and I need you both.’
‘OK, OK!’ Sharon exclaimed excitedly. ‘I think I’ve got an idea. What was that song we sang for the whole two weeks in Spain and we couldn’t get it out of our heads? It used to bug the hell out of us?’
Holly shrugged her shoulders. If it bugged the hell out of them it was hardly a very good choice.
‘I don’t know, I wasn’t invited on that holiday,’ muttered Denise.
‘Oh, you know the one, Holly!’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘Oh, you have to!’
‘Sharon, I don’t think she can remember,’ Denise said frustratedly to Sharon.
‘Oh, what was it?’ Sharon put her face in her hands, irritated. Holly shrugged her shoulders at Denise again. ‘OK, I’ve got it!!’ she announced happily, and began to sing loudly in the café. ‘“Sun, sea, sex, sand, come on boy, give me your hand!”.’
Holly’s eyes widened and her cheeks flushed with embarrassment as the surrounding tables turned to stare. She turned to Denise for support in silencing Sharon.
‘“Ooh ooh ooh so sexy, so sexy!”’ Denise joined in with Sharon. Some people stared with amusement but most with loathing while Denise and Sharon warbled their way through the tacky European dance song that was a hit a few summers previously. Just as they were about to sing the chorus for the fourth time (neither of them could remember the verses) Holly silenced them.
‘Girls, I can’t sing that song! Besides, the verses are rapped by a guy!’
‘Well, at least you wouldn’t have to sing too much,’ chuckled Denise.
‘No way! I am not rapping at a karaoke competition!’
‘OK, well, what CD are you listening to at the moment?’ Denise got serious again.
‘Westlife?’ She looked at them hopefully.
‘Then sing a Westlife song,’ Sharon encouraged. ‘That way, at least you’ll know all the words.’
Sharon and Denise began to laugh uncontrollably. ‘You might not get the tune right,’ Sharon forced out between hacking laughs.
‘But at least you’ll know the words!’ Denise managed to finish for her before the two of them doubled over at the table.
First Holly was angry but looking at both of them crouched over holding their stomachs in hysterics, she had to chuckle. They were right, Holly was completely tone deaf and hadn’t a note in her head. Finding a song she could actually sing was going to prove impossible.
Finally, after the girls had settled down again, Denise looked at her watch and moaned about having to get back to work. They left Bewley’s, much to the other customers’ delight. ‘The miserable sods will probably throw a party now,’ Sharon had mumbled, passing their tables.
The three girls linked arms and walked down Grafton Street, heading towards the clothes store where Denise was manager. The day was sunny with just a light chill in the air; Grafton Street was busy as usual with people running around on their lunch breaks while shoppers slowly meandered up the street taking full advantage of the lack of rain. At every stretch of the road there was a busker fighting for attention from the crowds, and Denise and Sharon embarrassingly did a quick Irish dance as they passed a man playing the fiddle. He winked at them and they threw some money into his tweed cap on the ground.
‘Right, you ladies of leisure, I’d better head back to work,’ Denise said, pushing the door to her shop open. As soon as her staff saw her they scarpered from gossiping at the counter and immediately began to tidy the clothes rails. Holly and Sharon tried not to laugh. They said their goodbyes and both headed up to Stephen’s Green to collect their cars.
‘“Sun, sea, sex, sand,”’ Holly quietly sang to herself. ‘Oh shit, Sharon, you’ve got that stupid song in my head now,’ she complained.
‘You see, there you go with that “shit Sharon” thing again. So negative, Holly.’ Sharon began humming the song.
‘Oh, shut up!’ Holly laughed, hitting her on the arm.
It was four o’clock by the time Holly eventually got out of town and started heading home to Swords. Evil Sharon had convinced Holly to go shopping after all, which resulted in her splashing out on a ridiculous top she was far too old to wear. She really needed to watch her spending from now on. Her funds were running low and without regular income she could sense tense times ahead. She needed to start thinking about getting a job, but she was finding it hard enough to get out of bed in the morning as it was – another depressing nine-to-five job wasn’t going to help matters. But it would pay the bills. Holly sighed loudly. All these things she had to handle by herself. She spent too much time on her own thinking about them. She needed people around her, like today with Denise and Sharon, as they always took her mind off things.
She phoned her mum and checked if it was all right for her to call round.
‘Of course you can, love, you’re always welcome.’ Then Elizabeth lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Just as long as you know that Richard is here.’ Christ! What was with all the little visits all of a sudden?
Holly contemplated heading straight home when she heard that, but convinced herself she was being silly. He was her brother and, as annoying as he was, she couldn’t go on avoiding him forever.
She arrived to an extremely loud and crowded house, and it felt like old times again, hearing screams and shouts in every room. Her mum was setting an extra place at the table just as Holly walked in.
‘Oh, Mum, you should have told me you were having dinner,’ Holly said, giving her a hug and a kiss.
‘Why, have you eaten already?’
‘No, actually I’m starving but I hope you didn’t go to too much trouble.’
‘No trouble at all, dear. It just means that poor Declan will have to go without food for the day, that’s all,’ she said, teasing her son, who was taking his seat. He made a face at her.
The atmosphere was so much more relaxed this time around – or maybe it had just been Holly who was uptight last time they met up.
‘So, Mr Hard Worker, why aren’t you in college today?’ she said sarcastically.
‘I’ve been in college all morning,’ Declan replied, making a face. ‘And I’m going back in at eight o’clock, actually.’
‘That’s very late,’ said his father, pouring gravy all over his plate. Frank always ended up with more gravy than food.
‘Yeah, but it was the only time I could get the editing suite.’
‘Is there only one editing suite, Declan?’ piped up Richard.
‘Yeah.’ Ever the conversationalist.
‘And how many students are there?’
‘It’s only a small class so there are twelve of us.’
‘Don’t they have the funds for any more?’
‘For what, students?’ Declan teased.
‘No, for another editing suite.’
‘No, it’s only a small college, Richard.’
‘I suppose the bigger universities would be better equipped for things like that. They’re better all round.’
And there was the dig they were all waiting for.
‘No, I wouldn’t say that. The facilities are top of the range, there’s just fewer people so less equipment. And the lecturers aren’t inferior to university lecturers. They’re a bonus because they work in the industry as well as lecturing. In other words, they practise what they preach. It’s not just textbook stuff.’
Good for you, Declan, Holly thought, and winked across the table at him.
‘I wouldn’t imagine they get paid well doing that, so they probably have no choice but to lecture too.’
‘Richard, working in film is a very good job; you’re talking about people who have spent years in college studying for degrees and masters …’
‘Oh, you get a degree for that, do you?’ Richard was amazed. ‘I thought it was just a little course you were doing.’
Declan stopped eating and looked at Holly in shock. Funny how Richard’s ignorance still amazed everyone.
‘Who do you think makes all those gardening programmes you watch, Richard?’ Holly interfered. ‘They’re not just a crowd of people who are doing a little course.’
The thought that there was a skill involved had never even crossed his mind. ‘Great little programmes they are,’ he agreed.
‘What’s your project on, Declan?’ Frank asked.
Declan finished chewing his food before he spoke. ‘Oh, it’s too messy to go into but basically it’s on club life in Dublin.’
‘Ooh, will we be in it?’ Ciara broke her unusual silence.
‘Yeah, I might just show the back of your head or something,’ he joked.
‘Well, I can’t wait to see it,’ Holly said encouragingly.
‘Thanks.’ Declan put his knife and fork down and started laughing, ‘Hey, what’s this I hear about you singing in a karaoke competition next week?’
‘What?’ Ciara yelled, her eyes nearly popping out of her head.
Holly pretended not to know what he was talking about.
‘Ah, come on, Holly!’ he persisted. ‘Danny told me!’ He turned to the rest of the table and explained, ‘Danny is the owner of the place where I did the gig the other night and he told me Holly has entered a karaoke competition in the club upstairs.’
Everyone oohed and aahed and talked about how great it was.
Holly refused to give in. ‘Declan, Daniel’s just playing games with you. Sure, everyone knows I can’t sing! Now, come on,’ she addressed the rest of the table. ‘Honestly, if I was singing in a karaoke competition I think I would tell you all.’ She laughed as if the thought was so ridiculous. In fact the thought was so ridiculous.
‘Holly,’ Declan chuckled, ‘I saw your name on the list. Don’t lie.’
Holly put her knife and fork down. She suddenly wasn’t hungry any more.
‘Holly, why didn’t you tell us you’re going to sing in a competition?’ her mother asked.
‘Because I can’t sing!’
‘Then why are you doing it?’ Ciara burst out laughing.
She may as well tell them, otherwise Declan would beat it out of her and she didn’t like lying to her parents.
‘OK, it’s a really complicated story, but basically Gerry entered my name in months ago because he really wanted me to do it and as much as I don’t want to do it, I feel I have to go through with it. It’s stupid, I know.’
Ciara stopped laughing abruptly.
Holly felt paranoid by her family staring at her, and she nervously tucked her hair behind her ears.
‘Well, I think that’s a wonderful idea,’ her dad suddenly announced.
‘Yes,’ added her mum, ‘and we’ll all be there to support you.’
‘No, Mum, you really don’t have to. It’s no big deal.’
‘There’s no way my sister is singing in a competition without me being there,’ declared Ciara.
‘Here, here,’ said Richard. ‘We’ll all go so. I’ve never been to a karaoke before. It should be …’ he searched his brain for the right word, ‘… fun.’
Holly groaned and closed her eyes, wishing she had gone straight home from town.
Declan was laughing hysterically, ‘Yes, Holly, it’ll be … hmmm …’ he said, scratching his chin, ‘… fun!’
‘When is it on?’ Richard said, taking out his diary.
‘Eh … Saturday,’ Holly lied, and Richard began writing it down.
‘It is not!’ Declan burst out. ‘It’s next Tuesday, you liar!’
‘Shit!’ cursed Richard, much to everyone’s surprise. ‘Has anyone got any Tippex?’
Holly could not stop going to the toilet. She was nervous and had had practically no sleep the night before. And she looked how she felt. There were huge bags around her bloodshot eyes and her lips were bitten.
The big day had arrived, her worst nightmare – singing in public.
Holly wasn’t even the kind of person who sang in the shower for fear of cracking all the mirrors. But man, was she spending time in the toilet today. There was no better laxative than fear, and Holly felt as if she had lost a stone in just one day. Her friends and family had been as supportive as ever, sending her good luck cards. Sharon and John had even sent her a bouquet of flowers, which she placed on the draught-free, heat-vent-free coffee table beside her half-dead orchid. Denise had ‘hilariously’ sent her a sympathy card.
Holly dressed in the outfit Gerry had told her to buy last month and cursed him throughout. There were far more important things to worry about right now than irrelevant little details like how she looked. She left her hair down so it covered her face as much as possible and piled on the waterproof mascara as though it was going to prevent her from crying. She could foresee the night ending in tears. She tended to have psychic powers when it came to facing the shittiest days of her life.
John and Sharon collected Holly in a taxi and she refused to talk to them, cursing everyone for forcing her to do this. She felt physically sick and she couldn’t sit still. Every time the taxi stopped at a red light she contemplated jumping out and running for dear life but by the time she would build up the courage the lights would go green again. Her hands fidgeted nervously and she kept opening and closing her bag, pretending to Sharon she was searching for something just to keep herself occupied.
‘Relax, Holly,’ Sharon said soothingly, ‘everything will be fine.’
‘Fuck off,’ she snapped.
They continued on in silence for the rest of the journey: even the taxi driver didn’t speak. After a tense journey they finally reached Hogan’s, and John and Sharon had a hell of a time trying to stop Holly ranting (something about preferring to jump in the Liffey) and persuading her to go inside. Much to Holly’s horror, the club was absolutely jammed and she had to squeeze by everyone to make her way to her family, who had saved a table (right beside the toilet as requested).
Richard was sitting awkwardly on a stool, looking out of place in a suit. ‘So tell me about these rules, Father. What will Holly have to do?’
Holly’s dad explained the ‘rules’ of karaoke to Richard and her nerves began to build even more.
‘Gosh, that’s terrific, isn’t it?’ Richard said, staring around the club in awe. Holly didn’t think he had ever been in a nightclub before.
The sight of the stage terrified Holly. It was much bigger than she had expected and there was a huge screen on the wall for the crowd to see the words of the songs. Jack was sitting with his arm draped around Abbey’s shoulders; they both gave her supportive smiles. Holly scowled at them and looked away.
‘Holly the funniest thing happened earlier on,’ Jack said laughing. ‘Remember that guy Daniel we met last week?’
Holly just stared at him, watching his lips moving but not giving a damn about what he said. ‘Well, me and Abbey got here first to keep the table and we were having a kiss and your man came over and whispered in my ear that you were gonna be here tonight. He thought we were going out and that I was doing the dirt!’ Jack and Abbey laughed hysterically.
‘Well, I think that’s disgusting,’ Holly said, and turned away.
‘No,’ Jack tried to explain, ‘he didn’t know that we were brother and sister. I had to explain …’ Jack trailed off as Sharon shot him a warning look and silenced him.
‘Hi, Holly,’ Daniel said, approaching her with a clipboard in his hand. ‘OK, here’s the order of tonight: first up is a girl called Margaret, then a guy called Keith and then you’re up after him. Is that OK?’
‘So I’m third.’
‘That’s all I need to know,’ Holly snapped rudely. She just wanted to get out of this stupid club and wished that everyone would stop annoying her and leave her alone to wish evil thoughts on them all. She wished the ground would swallow her up, that a natural disaster would occur and everyone would have to evacuate the building. In fact, that was a good idea. She searched around frantically for a button to raise the fire alarm, but Daniel was still talking away to her.
‘Look, Holly, I’m really sorry to disturb you again, but could you tell me which of your friends is Sharon?’ He looked as if he was afraid she was going to bite his head off. So he should be, she thought, narrowing her eyes.
‘Her over there.’ Holly pointed to Sharon. ‘Hold on, why?’
‘Oh, I just wanted to apologise for the last time we spoke.’ He started to walk towards Sharon.
‘Why?’ Holly said, the panic in her voice making him turn around again.
‘We just had a minor disagreement on the phone last week.’ He looked at her confused.
‘You know you really don’t need to do that. She’s probably forgotten about it completely by now,’ she stammered. This was the last thing she needed.
‘Yeah, but I would still like to apologise,’ and he headed over to Sharon. Holly leaped from her stool.
‘Sharon, hi, I’m Daniel. I just wanted to apologise about the confusion on the phone last week.’
Sharon looked at him as though he had ten heads. ‘Confusion?’
‘You know, on the phone?’
John placed his arm protectively around Sharon’s waist.
‘On the phone?’
‘Eh … yes, on the phone,’ he nodded.
‘What’s your name again?’
‘Em, it’s Daniel.’
‘And we spoke on the phone?’ Sharon said with a smile appearing on her face.
Holly gestured wildly to her behind Daniel’s back.
Daniel cleared his throat nervously. ‘Yes, you called the club last week and I answered – does that ring a bell?’
‘No, sweetie, you’ve got the wrong girl,’ Sharon said politely.
John threw Sharon a dirty look for calling him sweetie; if it was up to him he would have told him where to go.
Daniel brushed his hand through his hair and appeared to be more confused than everyone else. He began to turn round to face Holly.
Holly nodded her head frantically to Sharon.
‘Oh …’ Sharon said, looking as though she finally remembered. ‘Oh – Daniel!’ she yelled a bit over enthusiastically. ‘God, I am so sorry, my brain cells seem to be going a bit dead.’ She laughed like a mad woman. ‘Must be too much of this,’ she chortled, picking up her drink.
Relief washed over Daniel’s face. ‘Good, I thought it was me going mad there for a minute! OK, so you remember us having that conversation on the phone?’
‘Oh, that conversation we had on the phone. Listen, don’t worry about it,’ she said, waving her hand dismissively.
‘It’s just that I only took over the place a few weeks ago and I wasn’t too sure of the exact arrangements for tonight.’
‘Don’t worry … we all need our time … to adjust … to things … you know?’ Sharon looked at Holly to see if she had said the right thing or not.
‘OK then. Well, it’s nice to finally meet you in person,’ Daniel laughed. ‘Can I get you a stool or anything?’ he joked.
Sharon and John sat on their stools and stared back at him in silence, not knowing what to say to this strange man.
John watched with suspicion as Daniel walked away.
‘What was that all about?’ Sharon screamed at Holly as soon as he was out of earshot.
‘Oh, I’ll explain it to you later,’ said Holly. She turned to face the stage as their karaoke host stepped on stage.
‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!’ he announced.
‘Good evening!’ shouted Richard, looking excited. Holly rolled her eyes to heaven.
‘We have an exciting night ahead of us …’ he went on and on and on in his DJ voice while Holly danced nervously from foot to foot. She desperately needed the toilet again.
‘So first up tonight we have Margaret from Tallaght who is going to sing the theme to Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. Please put your hands together for the wonderful Margaret!’ The crowd went wild. Holly’s heart raced. The hardest song in the world to sing – typical.
When Margaret started to sing, the room became so quiet you could almost hear a pin drop. Holly watched everyone’s faces. They were all staring at Margaret in amazement, including Holly’s family, the traitors. Margaret’s eyes were closed and she sang with such passion, as though she had lived every line of the song. Holly hated her and contemplated tripping her up on her way back to her seat.
‘Wasn’t that incredible?’ the DJ announced. The crowd cheered again; Holly prepared herself not to hear that sound after she sang. ‘Next up we have Keith. You may remember him as last year’s winner and he’s singing “America” by Neil Diamond. Give it up for Keith!’ Holly didn’t need to hear any more and rushed to the toilet.
She paced up and down and tried to calm herself, but her knees were knocking, her stomach was twisted in knots and she felt the beginnings of vomit rising to her mouth. She looked at herself in the mirror and tried to take big deep breaths. It didn’t work, as it only made her feel dizzy. The crowd applauded outside and Holly froze. She was next.
‘Wasn’t Keith terrific, ladies and gentlemen?’
Lots of cheers again.
‘Perhaps Keith is going for the record of winning two years in a row. Well, it doesn’t get any better than that!’
It was about to get a lot worse.
‘Next we have a newcomer to the competition and her name is Holly and she’s singing …’
Holly ran to the toilet and locked herself in. There was no way in this world they were getting her out of there.
‘So, ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for Holly!’
There was a huge applause.
It was three years ago that Holly had taken to the stage for her debut karaoke performance.
Not coincidentally, it was three years since Holly had taken to the stage to do karaoke.
A huge crowd of her friends had gone to their local pub in Swords to celebrate one of the lad’s thirtieth birthdays. Holly had been extremely tired as she had been working overtime for the past two weeks and she really wasn’t in the mood to go out partying. All she wanted was to go home, have a nice long bath, put on the most unsexy pair of pyjamas she owned, eats lots of chocolate and snuggle up on the couch in front of the TV with Gerry.
After standing on an overcrowded Dart all the way from Blackrock to Sutton Station, Holly was definitely not in the mood to stand all night in a packed stuffy pub. On the train, half her face had been squashed up against the window and the other half lodged underneath the sweaty armpit of a very unhygienic man. Right behind her a man was breathing alcoholic fumes rather loudly down her neck. It didn’t help matters that every time the train swayed he ‘accidentally’ pressed his big beer belly up against her back. She had suffered through this ordeal everyday going to work and coming home for two weeks and she could take it no longer. She wanted her pyjamas.
Finally she arrived at Sutton Station and the very clever people there thought it was a great idea to all get on the train while passengers tried to get off. It took her so long to fight her way through the crowd to get off the train that by the time she reached the platform she saw her feeder bus drive off, packed with happy little people smiling out the window at her. And because it was after six o’clock, the coffee shop had closed and she was left standing in the freezing cold waiting for another half-hour till the next bus arrived. On top of everything else, this strengthened her desire to cuddle up in front of the fire.
But a good evening at home was not to be. Her beloved husband had other plans. She arrived home tired and extremely pissed off to a crowded house and thumping music. People she didn’t even know were wandering around her living room with cans of beer in their hands and slumping themselves on the couch she had intended to inhabit for the next few hours. Gerry stood at the CD player acting DJ and trying to look cool. At that moment in time she had never seen him look so uncool in her life.
‘What is wrong with you?’ Gerry asked her after seeing her storming upstairs to the bedroom.
‘Gerry, I am tired, I am pissed off, I am not in the mood to go out tonight and you didn’t even ask me if it was all right to invite all these people over. And, by the way, WHO ARE THEY?’ she yelled.
‘They’re friends of Conor’s and, by the way, THIS IS MY HOUSE TOO!’ he yelled back.
Holly placed her fingers on her temples and began to gently massage her head, she had such a headache and the music was driving her crazy.
‘Gerry,’ she said quietly, trying to stay calm, ‘I’m not saying that you can’t invite people over. It would be fine if you had planned it in advance and told me. Then I wouldn’t care, but today of all days when I am so so tired …’ her voice became weaker and weaker with every word, ‘I just wanted to relax in my own house.’
‘Oh, everyday’s the same with you,’ he snapped. ‘You never want to do anything any more anyway. Every single night, you come home in your cranky moods and bitch at me about everything!’
Holly’s jaw dropped. ‘Excuse me! I have been working hard!’
‘And so have I, but you don’t see me biting your head off every time I don’t get my own way.’
‘Gerry this isn’t about me getting my own way, this is about you inviting the whole street into our h—’
‘IT’S FRIDAY,’ he yelled, silencing her, ‘IT’S THE WEEKEND! When is the last time you went out? Leave your work behind and let your hair down, for a change. Stop acting like such a GRANNY!’ And he stormed out of the bedroom and slammed the door.
After spending a long time in the bedroom hating Gerry and dreaming of a divorce she managed to calm down and think rationally about what he had said. And he was right. OK, he wasn’t right in the way he had phrased it but she had been cranky and bitchy all month and she knew it.
Holly was the type of person who finished work at 5 p.m. and had her computer switched off, lights off, desk tidied and was running for her train by 5.01 p.m. whether her employers liked it or not. She never took her work home, never stressed about the future of the business because, quite frankly, she didn’t care, and phoned in sick as many Monday mornings as possible without running the risk of being fired. But due to a momentary lapse of concentration when looking for new employment, she had found herself accepting an office job that forced her to take paperwork home, agree to work late and worry about the business, which she was not happy with at all. How she even managed to stay there for an entire month was anybody’s guess but, nevertheless, Gerry had been right. Ouch, it even hurt to think it. She hadn’t gone out with him or her friends for weeks and fell asleep the minute her head hit the pillow every night. Come to think of it, that was probably Gerry’s main problem, never mind the bitchiness.
But tonight would be different. She intended showing her neglected friends and husband that she was still the fun and frivolous Holly who could drink them all under the table and still manage to walk the white line all the way home. This show of antics began by preparing home-made cocktails. God only knows what was in them, but they worked their magic, and at eleven o’clock they were all dancing down the road to the pub where karaoke was taking place. Holly demanded to be first up and heckled the karaoke host until she got her way. The pub was jammed and that night there was a very rowdy crowd who were out on a stag night. It was as though a film crew had arrived in the pub hours earlier and worked away, setting the scene for disaster. They couldn’t have done a better job.
The DJ gave Holly a huge build-up after believing her lies of being a professional singer. Gerry lost all power of speech and sight from laughing so hard but she was determined to show him that she could still let her hair down. He needn’t plan that divorce just yet. Holly decided to sing ‘Like a Virgin’ and dedicated it to the man who was getting married the next day. As soon as she started singing, Holly had never heard so many boos in her whole life and at such a loud volume. But she was so drunk she didn’t care and continued on singing to her husband, who seemed to be the only one without a moody face.
Eventually, when people began to throw things at the stage, and when the karaoke host himself encouraged them to boo even louder, Holly felt that her work there had been done. When she handed him back the microphone there was a cheer so loud that people from the pub next door came running in. There were all the more people to see Holly trip down the steps in her stilettos and fall flat on her face. They all watched as her skirt went flying over her head to reveal the old underwear, which had once been white and which she hadn’t bothered to change when she got home from work.
Holly was taken to hospital to see to her broken nose.
Gerry lost his voice from laughing so loudly and Denise and Sharon helped matters by taking photographs of the scene of the crime, which Denise then chose as the cover for the invitations to her Christmas party with the heading, ‘Let’s get legless!’
Holly vowed never to do karaoke again.
‘Holly Kennedy? Are you here?’ the karaoke host’s voice boomed. The crowd’s applause died down into a loud chatter as everyone looked around in search of Holly. Well, they would be a long time looking, she thought as she lowered the toilet seat lid and sat down to wait for the excitement to settle so they could move on to their next victim. She closed her eyes, rested her head on her hands, and prayed for this moment to pass. She wanted to open her eyes and be at home safely, a week from now. She counted to ten, praying for a miracle and then slowly opened them again.
She was still in the toilet.
Why couldn’t she, at least just this once, suddenly find magical powers?
Holly knew this would happen. From the moment she opened that envelope and read Gerry’s third letter, she foresaw tears and humiliation. Her nightmare had come true.
Outside, the club sounded very quiet and a sense of calm engulfed her as she realised they were moving on to the next singer. Her shoulders relaxed and she unclenched her fists, her jaw relaxed and air flowed more easily into her lungs. The panic was over but she decided to wait until the next singer began before she made a run for it. She couldn’t even climb out the window – well, not unless she wanted to plummet to her death.
Outside the cubicle Holly heard the toilet door open and slam. Uh-oh, they were coming to get her, whoever they were.
It was Sharon.
‘Holly, I know you’re in there so just listen to me, OK?’
Holly sniffed back the tears that were beginning to well.
‘OK, I know that this is an absolute nightmare for you and I know you have a major phobia about this kind of thing but you need to relax, OK?’
Sharon’s voice was so soothing, Holly’s shoulders once again relaxed.
‘Holly, I hate mice, you know that.’
Holly frowned, wondering where this little pep talk was going.
‘And my worst nightmare would be to walk out of here to a room full of mice. Now could you imagine me?’
Holly smiled at the thought and remembered the time when Sharon moved in with Gerry and Holly for two weeks after she had caught a mouse in her house. John, of course, had been granted conjugal visits.
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