Mum flung open the sitting-room door and announced, "Morning, Anna,
time for your tablets."
She tried to march briskly, like nurses she'd seen on hospital
dramas, but there was so much furniture in the room that instead
she had to wrestle her way toward me.
When I'd arrived in Ireland eight weeks earlier, I couldn't climb
the stairs, because of my dislocated kneecap, so my parents had
moved a bed downstairs into the Good Front Room.
Make no mistake, this was a huge honor: under normal circumstances
we were only let into this room at Christmastime. The rest of the
year, all familial leisure activities -- television watching,
chocolate eating, bickering -- took place in the cramped converted
garage, which went by the grand title of Television Room.
But when my bed was installed in the GFR there was nowhere for the
other fixtures -- tasseled couches, tasseled armchairs -- to go.
The room now looked like a discount furniture store, where millions
of couches are squashed in together, so that you almost have to
clamber over them like boulders along the seafront.
"Right, missy." Mum consulted a sheet of paper, an hour-by-hour
schedule of all my medication -- antibiotics, anti-inflammatories,
anti-depressants, sleeping pills, high-impact vitamins, painkillers
that -induced a very pleasant floaty feeling, and a member of the
Valium family, which she had ferried away to a secret
All the different packets and jars stood on a small, elaborately
carved table -- several china dogs of unparalleled hideousness had
been shifted to make way for them and now sat on the floor looking
reproachfully at me -- and Mum began sorting through them, popping
out capsules and shaking pills from bottles.
My bed had been thoughtfully placed in the window bay so that I
could look out at passing life. Except that I couldn't: there was a
net curtain in place that was as immovable as a metal wall. Not
physically immovable, you understand, but socially immovable: in
Dublin suburbia brazenly lifting your nets to have a good look at
"passing life" is a social gaffe akin to painting the front of your
house Schiaparelli pink.
Besides, there was no passing life. Except . . . actually, through
the gauzy barrier, I'd begun to notice that most days an elderly
woman stopped to let her dog wee at our gatepost -- sometimes I
thought the dog, a cute black-and-white terrier, didn't even want
to wee, but it was looking as if the woman was insisting.
"Okay, missy." Mum had never called me "missy" before all of this.
"Take these." She tipped a handful of pills into my mouth and
passed me a glass of water. She was very kind really, even if I
suspected she was just acting out a part. "Dear Jesus," a voice
said. It was my sister Helen, home from a night's work. She stood
in the doorway of the sitting room, looked around at all the
tassels, and asked, "How can you stand it?"
Helen is the youngest of the five of us and still lives in the
parental home, even though she's twenty-nine. But why would she
move out, she often asks, when she's got a rent-free gig, cable
telly, and a built-in chauffeur (Dad). The food, of course, she
admits, is a problem, but there are ways around everything.
"Hi, honey, you're home," Mum said. "How was work?"
After several career changes, Helen -- and I'm not making this up,
I wish I was -- is a private investigator. Mind you, it sounds far
more -dangerous and exciting than it is; she mostly does
white-collar crime and "domestics" -- where she has to get proof of
men having affairs. I would find it terribly depressing but she
says it doesn't bother her because she's always known that men were
She spends a lot of time sitting in wet hedges with a long-range
lens, trying to get photographic evidence of the adulterers leaving
their love nest. She could stay in her nice, warm, dry car but then
she tends to fall asleep and miss her mark.
"Mum, I'm very stressed," she said, "Any chance of a Valium?"
"My throat is killing me. War-crime sore. I'm going to bed."
Helen, on account of all the time she spends in damp hedges, gets a
lot of sore throats.
"I'll bring you up some ice cream in a minute, pet," Mum said.
"Tell me, I'm dying to know, did you get your mark?"
Mum loves Helen's job, nearly more than she loves mine, and that's
saying a lot. (Apparently, I have the Best Job in the
World™.) Occasionally, when Helen is very bored or scared,
Mum even goes to work with her; the Case of the Missing Woman comes
to mind. Helen had to go to the woman's apartment, looking for
clues (air tickets to Rio, etc. As if . . .) and Mum went along
because she loves seeing inside other people's houses. She says
it's amazing how dirty people's homes are when they're not
expecting visitors. This gives her great relief, making it easier
to live in her own less-than-pristine crib. However, because her
life had begun to resemble, however briefly, a crime drama, Mum got
carried away and tried to break down the locked apartment door by
running at it with her shoulder -- even though, and I can't stress
this enough, Helen had a key. And Mum knew she had
it. It had been given to her by the missing woman's sister and all
Mum got for her trouble was a badly mashed shoulder.
"It's not like on the telly," she complained afterward, kneading
the top of her arm.
Then, earlier this year, someone tried to kill Helen. The general
consensus was not so much shock that such a dreadful thing would
happen as amazement that it hadn't come to pass much sooner. Of
course, it wasn't really an attempt on her life. Someone threw a
stone through the television-room window during an episode of
EastEnders -- probably just one of the local teenagers expressing
his feelings of youthful alienation, but . . .
Anybody Out There?