Authors: Sinead Moriarty
To be fair, she also loved teaching because it afforded her so much free time with the twins. They meant the world to her and she was determined to be with them as much as she could. To be a mother on her own terms, as opposed to having the role foisted on her at twelve, was a completely different experience. She had found it a chore to bring up Derek and me but raising the twins was pure joy. She relished her role and, as usual with Fiona, she became the best she could be – cooking them home-made organic meals, reading to them every night, teaching them the piano and playing stimulating games with them when she was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open. She had the patience of a saint – a virtue that had passed me by. Clearly she had got my share too. But all this, plus looking after Mark, preparing and correcting class work had left little time for Fiona to look after herself. As a result she seemed tired and older than her thirty-four years.
Mark had chosen a more ambitious route and gone on to become a college lecturer. He had spent nine years playing the political game like the chess master he was, which had led to his recent appointment as head of mathematics at Dublin University. At thirty-five, he was the youngest person ever to hold the post – which he wasn’t shy about telling you.
It was all very well for him to focus on his career, but it left Fiona to do the lion’s share of parenting and home-making. No wonder she was tired: it was a one-woman show. Whenever I had raised this with her in the past, she had laughed and said marriage was about compromise and that Mark’s success provided them with a lifestyle they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Because of him, the boys would be going to the best private school in Dublin and would have all the extra-curricular lessons and tutoring they needed. When I said I thought they’d be better off going to the local national school she shook her head and said that gifted children needed special guidance. The twins seemed bright enough, but I wasn’t sure about gifted. High-spirited, maybe, but I didn’t see any signs of genius, but then, hey, what did I know? I was single and in a job that required little or no intellect.
Once the twins had nodded off, I asked Fiona when Mark was due home. She looked at her watch. ‘Oh, probably not for another hour.’
‘How come he’s so late?’
‘He’s busy with the paper for the Goldwin Prize. He’s flat out, poor thing.’
I resisted the urge to tell her that I thought it disgraceful that her husband was showing up at nine o’clock on the night before her lumpectomy. Surely his stupid paper could have waited until tomorrow. ‘Can I get you anything?’ I asked.
‘No, I’m fine. I’ll just clean up here and then we can go through the boys’ routine for tomorrow.’
‘I’ll do that. Go and sit down – you look exhausted.’
‘I’m fine, Kate. Leave it,’ she said, grabbing the plates from my hand.
‘Fiona!’ I said sharply. ‘Sit down and relax. I’ll clean this up. Stop trying to be Superwoman. Let me help.’
She looked surprised at my outburst, but for once she did as she was told. She
be feeling rotten, I thought, as I stacked the dishwasher. She’d never normally let me boss her around.
When I had finished clearing up, Fiona said, ‘I don’t want the boys’ lives to be interrupted by my being sick. It’s absolutely vital that they have a normal routine. It’ll make them feel secure.’
She was right. It made sense. Suddenly I felt very grownup. I was about to be allowed to look after the twins – gifted and all as they were.
‘Should I be taking notes?’ I asked, fishing in my bag for a pen and paper and coming up with an eyeliner and the back of a cigarette pack.
Fiona sighed and handed me a folder titled ‘Routine’. In it was a colour-coded timetable, covering every detail of the twins’ day, including what music to play in the car on the way to and from school.
‘Wow, that’s impressive. You’ll have to give me the CD,’ I said, looking down at the list: Beethoven, Symphony No. 5; Pachelbel, Canon in D; Mozart,
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
; Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1; Mendelssohn, Symphony No. 4; Beethoven,
; Mozart, Violin Concerto No. 3; Tchaikovsky,
Waltz of the Flowers
. ‘I somehow doubt that Derek will have it in his collection.’
Fiona didn’t seem to find this amusing.
‘Don’t kids listen to nursery rhymes anymore?’ I asked.
‘Classical music has been proven to develop motor and rhythmic skills. Before we get into the car the boys pick a song and I tell them a little fact about the composer. They really like it and already have preferences. Bobby loves Mozart, and Jack leans more towards Schubert.’
I stared at Fiona. Was this for real? Did she really believe the boys knew the difference between Mozart and Schubert? She was beginning to sound like one of those home-schooling parents whose kids wore dickie bows and went on
aged five and studied at Oxford at eleven. They were always total loners and most ended up having nervous breakdowns because they hadn’t had a normal childhood. I was concerned for the twins.
‘It seems a bit hectic and intense,’ I ventured.
‘Kate,’ said Fiona, glaring at me, ‘they are my children and they like their routine. They are very happy and well balanced. Don’t swan in here and criticize me. You’ve always done exactly what you want to. That has to change now. You don’t come first – the twins do.’
I felt as if I’d been slapped in the face. In the past when Mark had implied that I was selfish, Fiona had always defended me and said I was self-sufficient and that it was a good thing. I was the type of person who needed to spread my wings, she’d said. I knew that sometimes, like when I forgot the twins’ birthday last year, she got fed up with me and told me I was thoughtless, but she’d never snapped at me like this before. And the way she’d said it, with so much anger, I could see it had come from deep inside. I was tempted to defend myself and tell her that I was just trying to get on with my life and make something of myself, instead of staying in Dublin, marrying the guy next door and having children. What was wrong with being ambitious and wanting more? I craved excitement, independence, freedom and new experiences. She didn’t. We were different. Different strokes for different folks. Besides, it had been better for her when I moved away because she was able to get on with her own life and stop thinking she had to look after me and fix me. I didn’t need fixing. I needed room to breathe. And, besides, hadn’t I just moved home, lock, stock and barrel, to help her out? I’d given up the life I’d made for myself and a job I loved.
The new mature me decided to bite my tongue. She was sick and scared.
‘OK. Well, I’ll let you get an early night. I’ll go home and study the timetable and read up the information about the composers so I can tell the boys tomorrow. I’ll see you at eight.’
I’d be up all night at this rate, reading about Mozart and the gang – I hadn’t counted on having to study to look after my nephews. Maybe I could rent that movie about Mozart. I wondered if they’d made one about Schubert. If so, I hoped the actor who played him was cute – it’d be so much easier to watch.
‘Fine, thanks,’ she said stiffly.
I looked at her worried face. ‘Fiona, it’s going to be OK. You’re not Mum.’
She looked away. ‘Right… I’ll see you tomorrow, then.’
I reached out to touch her shoulder but she moved away, so I left her standing in the kitchen, arms wrapped around herself in an effort to find warmth and comfort.
As I was leaving, I bumped into Mark getting out of his car. He came over to say hello. I could smell beer on his breath. ‘Have you been drinking?’
‘Welcome back, Supernanny.’
‘I had a beer with the dean.’
‘Couldn’t it have waited? Your wife is inside having a nervous breakdown about tomorrow.’
‘Did you reassure her? Is she OK now?’
‘I was too busy putting your children to bed and learning their routine off by heart while you were downing beers. You should have taken Fiona out for dinner, and pampered her and told her how wonderful she is. She’s got cancer, Mark, in case you forgot while you were choosing between Heineken and Budweiser.’
‘I am well aware of Fiona’s condition. I really don’t think someone who has been back all of five minutes is in any position to tell me about my wife.’
‘I didn’t give everything up to come back here and look after your family so that you can go out and get pissed whenever you feel like it. I thought you were supposed to be busy preparing some world-altering paper,’ I hissed, venting my general frustration on him.
‘Which was exactly what I was talking to the dean about. Really, Kate, there’s no need to turn into a fishwife. I hope you won’t be talking like that in front of the boys. If I hear them cursing I’ll know who to blame.’
‘Well, Mark, that makes two of us, because I hold you responsible for my sister’s happiness and so far you’re doing a pretty crummy job. You might want to remember the “in sickness and in health” vow you made when you married her. Now, get in there and comfort her,’ I said, and stormed off before he could respond.
It was only when I was half-way down the road that I realized I had forgotten to call a taxi. It had started to rain so I called Derek to come and pick me up.
‘I don’t drive.’
‘I thought Dad got you lessons for Christmas.’
‘Yeah, but I flogged them to one of the chicks in work for cash to buy some new equipment.’
‘Jesus, Derek, it’s bucketing down. Is Dad there?’
‘Bollox!’ I roared, now at the end of my tether.
‘Tone it down a million. Gonzo’s here. He’s just offered to pick you up.’
I really didn’t feel like being groped all the way home, but the rain was beating down and I was damned if I’d go back and ask Mark for a lift. ‘OK. Tell him to hurry up.’
Five minutes later Gonzo came hurtling up the road.
I squeezed my soaking frame into his Mini.
‘Oh, yes – I love the wet look,’ he said, and placed a hand on my thigh.
‘Gonzo, if you value your life, you’ll keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the steering-wheel. I’m cold, wet and in a very bad mood,’ I said, putting his hand back.
‘Feel free to rid yourself of the wet clothes,’ he said, with a grin.
I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. What the hell was I doing here?
When I had finally extricated myself from Gonzo’s lunges, I went in and poured myself a glass of wine to steady my nerves. Derek was sprawled on the couch watching MTV’s top ten rappers of all time and shouting along to the lyrics. I closed the kitchen door, sat at the table, lit a cigarette and opened my folder. Homework time.
Fiona’s timetable was detailed to say the least. When I had ploughed through all the stimulating games I was supposed to play with the boys – including some maths ones that I wasn’t sure I was up to – I found a handwritten note.
Kate, thanks for coming home. It means a lot to me. I know how hard it was for you and I really appreciate it. I’m only holding it together by a thread, so I can’t say this to you face to face. Anyway, you know me: I’ve always been hopeless about showing my emotions. I know the boys will enjoy spending time with you, but please follow the routine. I want their lives to continue as normal. I don’t want them to know how sick I am. I don’t want them to be scared. I don’t want their childhoods to be snatched away like ours was. See you tomorrow and thanks again. Fiona
This was Fiona all over. She had a heart of gold and always believed that actions spoke louder than words. She’d show you she loved you by doing things for you. Since Mum died, she had found it hard to show her emotions, probably because she had to suppress her grief while comforting Derek and me. I sniffled into my glass of wine. My sister was glad I was home, and that was all that mattered. Mark and his snide remarks were irrelevant.
The door opened and Dad came in. ‘How many Oscars did Katherine Hepburn win?’
‘Name the films.’
Morning Glory. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. On Golden Pond
‘Wrong. She won four, and you know the other one. Come on, Katie.’
I racked my brains. This was Dad’s and my favourite game, and one that I was actually good at. I shared his obsession with films. As far back as I could remember he had sat me down to watch all the classic Hollywood films – it was our way of bonding. Fiona had been too busy with chess and Derek had had the attention span of a flea, so Dad focused his love of cinema on me. I had spent many a rainy Saturday afternoon with him, watching spellbound as Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall and many others strutted their stuff.
The Lion in Winter
,’ I shouted.
‘Well done. Good to see you haven’t lost it,’ he said, beaming at me. ‘Now, how did it go with Fiona?’
‘She’s stressed and scared but, all things considered, she seemed OK. As for that husband of hers, though – God, Dad, he’s so patronizing! He didn’t get back till nine and then he started giving me grief. He’s behaved like a total tosser since she got sick.’
‘Careful, Kate, you can’t go around criticizing Mark. He’s Fiona’s husband and you have to respect that and put up with him for her sake – even if he is being a pain in the arse,’ he muttered.
‘Who’s being a pain in the arse?’ asked Derek.
‘Mark,’ I said.
‘Wanker,’ said Derek. ‘He called me up yesterday and told me to stop asking Fiona for advice and stuff. He said she doesn’t need to be worrying about me when she’s sick. As if I’d offload on her now! I’m not a total moron.’
‘That’s a relief,’ said Dad, winking at me.
‘How is she anyway?’ asked Derek.
‘Sure that girl was born brave,’ said Dad. ‘How are the twins?’
‘Fine. They seem blissfully unaware that anything’s wrong. I’ve a list of things to study for tomorrow, though. They have a very precise schedule.’