The clock ticked softly on the wall of the surgery alongside a shabby collection of peeling posters advertising various medical products. I sat on the chair, my legs crossed. There were five other people ahead of me in the waiting room. I picked up a battered and dated magazine, flicked through the pages and rested it back on my knees. I looked at the page as an illiterate might, my eyes flickering from picture to headline and back. My raincoat was buttoned up although it was not cold. I was sweating slightly. My make-up had the look of being well worn and it was. I had not removed or replaced it since eight o’clock the night before. The dark smudges under my eyes might have been sexy by candlelight but by morning the look was creased and oily.
Semen pooled in my damp panties. I, Aoife Brennan, was thirty-eight and in need of the morning after pill and the coil. This was how a marriage ended.
My mother and I put our heads together, drawing comfort from our proximity; as children colouring pictures might. We looked out the kitchen window into the garden. It was early morning and a light dew covered the grass. May had brought showers and cold weather. The pale green of the foliage belonging to an earlier, less verdant month, and there were even straggling daffodils dotted along the edge of the lawn.
I held a mug of coffee in my hand, watching closely the scene outside. My mother had placed the hot mug into my hand as I arrived, the currency of thankfulness. We now looked out together in quiet worry. ‘It’s getting worse,’ she said. I nodded. ‘I know. It’s the third time this month,’ and followed my mother’s gaze out to the far corner of the garden. There my father sat in the early morning dew on a battered sun lounger that had seen better days. His chair faced east to best catch the rising sun, if the clouds would ever part, and he concentrated as he read yesterday’s paper, glasses on head and stark bollock naked except for a pair of leather slippers. He crossed his legs, the slipper dangling on a bobbing foot as he nodded to an unheard tune.
‘He opened the door to the meter man last week,’ sighed Mum. ‘I didn’t know at the time. I was in the garden and had missed the doorbell. I also didn’t realise your father was having one of his turns. I’m not sure who was more embarrassed, the meter man or me. But Dad just welcomed him in, and made to lead him to the garage until I stopped him.’
‘What does Dr Coleman say?’ but even as I asked, I knew the answer. Dementia or Alzheimer’s; the diagnosis was imprecise and premature. In all other matters Dad was the same as ever. He would not admit or acknowledge any cracks in his mental state and refused point blank to believe he had taken up naturalism. ‘Never did in my youth, so why would I now in my dotage,’ and he joked as if he was far from his dotage, as only a sane man might demand. So why still did a frightened look cross his face? I wondered if he knew something, if he were just in denial, or did he even question what happened to those missing periods in his day?
‘I tried to bring him in,’ Mum said, ‘but he refused. Quite bluntly. Maybe you can persuade him?’ She looked sadly at me and I shifted uncomfortably. It was not just my father’s nakedness that disturbed me. In his distracted periods he thought I was his own mother, my grandmother: a familial likeness that upset me now. To be parent to the parent was not something that sat naturally with a child and I was no exception.
I took my father’s dressing gown off the back of the kitchen chair and walked slowly down the garden. As I approached, he shook the paper and rested it conveniently on his lap. Thank God for small mercies I muttered to myself. ‘Come now dad,’ I encouraged him brightly. ‘It’s too cold to sit out here with no clothes on. I’ve told you before. You can’t upset the neighbours and you’ll catch your death of cold.’ As I talked, I lifted him up, wrapping the dressing gown round the thin shoulders and resolutely avoiding looking at his shrivelled manhood. There are some things a daughter should never see and I shuddered, thanking God yet again that I had not followed nursing as a career. ‘Too many body parts to manage’ had been my stance in career advice classes and the stance held still. A vocation they called it at school, like joining the nuns. Neither appealed to me, then or now. He went in as unresisting as a lamb.
I finished my second cup of coffee and was about to leave when dad popped his head around the kitchen door, closely followed by the rest of his, by now, fully clothed body. ‘Hello love,’ he said. ‘What has you here so early? No more trouble at home I hope?’ and a frown creased his brow.
‘No, all quiet at home,’ I replied. ‘Just kids working hard.’
Quiet at home was good. It was also rare. My two teenage boys did not do quiet. They left tracks across the house like rutting bucks; spilled school bags by the door, kitbags in the utility, coats flung on the banisters, keys, phones, actually I stand corrected, not phones, but every other piece of detritus from their pockets dashed on the hall stand and often following up the stairs to their respective bedrooms like the crumbs from Hansel and Gretel. Of course, I knew better than to follow those crumbs. My entry to their rooms was limited and only out of necessity. Laundry bags collected and cups and dishes gathered up, but I rarely upset the bedding, except to shake or smooth it. I never looked under the bed, under the mattress. I didn’t want to know what lurked beneath.
Once a fortnight the bed linen was chucked out into the hall and clean linen put by their doors. When Denis turned thirteen, his father had said to me that I was no longer to enter my son’s room; that Denis was capable of keeping it clean and making his own bed. Two years later the same held for Andrew. Three months after that, Paul had left but the rule held strong four years on.
Today, the boys were gone when I returned home; Denis to soccer and Andrew to a friend’s. Weekends were busy catching up, acting as a taxi mum, and trying to get the house back in order. By Sunday night, if I was lucky, peace might descend: the washing machine stilled, the ironing folded in baskets, the groceries put away and only the hum of the dish washer running its cycle after the Sunday dinner. The kids often played games in the den, a small room off the hallway, while I watched television in the living room. Old films, documentaries sometimes, the odd reality show when no one was watching. For some reason Made in Chelsea fascinated me; shades of my youth when living in London perhaps. Utter tosh of course but as watchable as a car crash, rubber-necking all the way.
I had also discovered the joys of a smartphone. And the possibility of online dating. The web-hosting company I worked for had banned Facebook and other social media sites, so naturally dating sites were also blocked. At home, I didn’t dare look up dating sites on the laptop, even when I could delete the browsing histories or view sites incognito. It was too worrying in case I forgot to delete the history or missed something and the boys, black hats in the making, caught me out. With my smartphone I felt safe enough, after all that never left my purse. I’d put up a bland profile on a popular dating site two days ago, with no picture and an obligatory five years shaved off my age, but already it was proving slightly addictive. I checked in with alarming regularity, just to see who might be there. Just lurking at the moment I thought, just lurking. One man, Firefox121, had caught my attention; or rather I had caught his. He was sending me regular messages. It was slightly creepy thinking there was someone on the internet thinking about me. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not.
In the five years since Paul had left me, I’d been on three dates. The first one was with the local butcher. Trish still laughs so hard over that story and tells me that I missed a good thing there. Trish, who has been my best friend since primary school, is the only one allowed to tease me about men. Actually, she is one of the few friends whom I managed to hang on to since my separation. It is possibly her fearlessness and kindness - a good combination for a lifelong friendship especially when laced with a wicked sense of humour. ‘Think of all the free meat you are missing,’ Trish joked about the butcher, more than once, ignoring my pained expression. I wince every time I remember. Frank had been one of the first people outside the family to know I was separated. My purchasing patterns went from four steaks to three and then over the following months to less expensive cuts. He finally asked me quietly one day as I paid for three pork chops and stewing beef if I was on my own now. I, flustered, said yes and, still flustered, found myself accepting a date.
When I met Frank at the cinema, I half expected him to be dressed in his butcher’s apron. Instead he wore a suit and no tie, but clumsily. His paunch was more noticeable and less welcoming when not covered with the familiar stripy cloth. His breath smelled and his large hands, so capable when carving up slabs of dead animals, looked strangely out of place as they emerged from the slightly short suit sleeves. Hairy and threatening they rested on his legs during the film, and I felt they might rise up and grasp me bodily as if I were a carcass to be butchered. I kept watching them from the corner of my eye, willing them not to move in my direction.
We’d actually bumped teeth when he’d tried to kiss me at the end of a limp awkward evening. Of course, that meant I had to change my butchers afterwards too. Things your mother never told you, I said to Trish. The list of things had been growing at an alarming rate. Never date your butcher would be number one. Now I had to go to the less impressive butcher at the other end of the village, or use the supermarket. Neither really suited me and I fumed at my lack of forethought. Actually, I realised I hadn’t given any thought at all to what it would be like to date again after marriage, full stop. I seemed to have all the necessary baggage to thwart successful attempts at dating. For a start there was my age. Now into my forties I am losing that edge that early maturity from the previous decade confers, at least in the aspect of entering into new sexual relations. Then there was the question of having two teenage children, two boys no less. The thought of arriving home with a man in tow other than their father was horrifying; and I am genuinely not sure who would find it more upsetting, my children or I. Finally, there was my own particular deviancy in which I initially accepted dates from men who not only lived too close but who also provided me with much needed local services. As a result my uncritical criteria for potential suitors resulted in the domino-like crashing of local services about me
Yes, for after the butcher, I went on a date with the manager of Tesco. Dandruff speckled his suit collar and he kept on sniffing without using a handkerchief. I met him for a drink first and Derek went on, at length, about his ‘bitch of an ex-wife’, the financial costs of rearing two ungrateful children and finally how lonely he had been. For lonely, I translated afterwards for Trish, read horny. This disastrous date ended up with Derek trying to find his way into my bra while parked in a quiet laneway. ‘You can’t come back to mine,’ I’d told him earlier. ‘The boys.’ The sentence hung in the air like a loaded gun and we both backed away.
Instead Derek had driven around for a bit, whistling tunelessly, his hand on my knee, until he parked up the back of Tesco. The irony was not lost on me. Nor was the fact that as he tried to wrestle with the clasp on my bra, he encountered foundation garments that were having none of it, or rather none of him. He half squashed my left breast as he fumbled to release it. As he drew his mouth down to suck the nipple, I’d had enough. Pushing him back I demanded to be brought home, now. This he did in stony silence, all whistling stopped and with his eyes straight ahead. That put Tesco off limits, on Monday through Thursday anyway, and my boys thought me mad as I often travelled the half an hour journey to Dunnes Stores instead.
Trish had suggested I try dating a candlestick maker next. ‘Make it a full set?’ she said.
‘You have no idea,’ I said without laughing and went on a date with a sailor instead.
Well, he wasn’t actually a sailor. He worked in the charity shop that raised money for the Lifeboat service. His mild manner had appealed to me when I had occasionally dropped off unwanted clothes or books. Shane had invited me for coffee and so we sat in the weak sunshine by the café window. Shane proved to be a free spirit with three children by three different women. He was friendly with all and operated a pleasant lifestyle living with or at least visiting them by rotation. Of course he had no money, very little ambition other than to fish when he was not resting with his trinity of happy families, and enjoyed international film. I decided our relationship might extend to exploring film together but nothing else. Still, I was relieved when he didn’t try to kiss me, other than on the cheek, and I could still visit the shop. This might come in handy I thought as my days of donating were rapidly changing to those of browsing in the charity shop.
It was Trish who pointed out the obvious. ‘Those men are all too close to home. You are shitting on your own doorstep, Sweetie.’ She smiled to soften the language. ‘You need to branch out, take up a new hobby, meet new people who are not in a one-mile radius! There are plenty of fish in the sea.’
‘I have used up all the available single men of my acquaintance already anyway,’ I sighed.
That night I lay in bed watching television. I had hated having the TV in the bedroom when married, it had been too intrusive or maybe it was just that Paul watched endless sports programmes long after I wanted to go to sleep. Now it felt like an old friend, comfortable and companionable.
I prodded my belly through my soft cotton pyjamas. I squeezed my breasts. Gravity hadn’t quite finished them off, yet. In fact, I looked better than I had towards the end of my marriage, when food had been a vindictive substitute for love. Pilates and no longer buying Paul’s favourite biscuits had helped too. Now, I didn’t really have the time to sit and eat and I didn’t want to either. Of course, I wondered if I might be attractive to a man. Conversely I wondered if I might actually find a man attractive. The last time I had dated I had been in my twenties. My prospective dates then did not have beer bellies, paunches or varicose veins. They didn’t have reddened cheeks, thinning hair and sagging bottoms. They didn’t have coarse hairs growing in ears, out of noses or tufting in eyebrows.
I picked up my phone and tapped the dating app. There were three new messages, two from Firefox121 and one from Daemon. Yesterday Daemon had said hi, tonight he asked me if I moaned during sex, if I liked anal. I hastily blocked him. Firefox121 asked me about my kids, what age they were. In the next email he asked about my hobbies. I was warming to Firefox121.
‘Ma,’ Denis was standing at the bedroom door and I half-dropped the phone. He stood six feet tall, lanky and long with mad brush hair. He half hopped from one foot to the other. ‘I’ve the school trip tomorrow. Do you have fifty euro?’
Money was increasingly a sore topic. Paul continued to pay the mortgage, but he expected me to pay all the rest. My job in support for a web-hosting company paid well but not enough to cover the extras. Denis wanted to get a part-time job. I was not in favour as he had his leaving certificate next year, but there weren’t any jobs anyway. His hobby of tinkering with cars also ate into any spare cash he might have had. How like his father in looks he was, I thought as I reached for the wallet beside my bed.
‘The problem with dating is that I haven’t for ages,’ I said. Trish and I had grabbed our usual Friday lunch. During the summer we liked to buy sandwiches and sit in St Stephen’s Green watching the world go by. ‘I mean aside from my few abortive attempts I haven’t dated a man in nearly twenty years. As for sex,’ I raised my eyebrows. ‘Well, that is the big bottleneck. How am I supposed to take my clothes off and be naked, I mean naked, in front of a stranger?’
Trish laughed, almost choking on her sandwich. ‘With any luck, when you get to that bit, the man won’t be a stranger!’
‘You know what I mean. Sex with a stranger. How can I do it?’
‘Same as you did it with Paul, I guess,’ said Trish and a look of grim horror passed over my face. ‘Ok, scrap that thought. With plenty of alcohol, lights out and romantic music in the background.’
‘I just can’t imagine it. Do people still do it the same way I wonder?’
‘Don’t look at me,’ Trish laughed, ‘I’m still married and therefore don’t count.’
We sat for a bit in quiet. When I next spoke it was to remark upon a particularly pretty dress a young woman passing by was wearing. ‘You don’t fool me,’ said Trish. ‘You’re still thinking about sex. I can tell.’
‘I’m thinking that if I don’t use it, do I lose it?’
‘It, or rather you, don’t have a ‘best by’ date.’
‘I feel as though I do though,’ I sighed. ‘I feel horribly old. Just as I feel that maybe I’d like to start dating again, I wonder if anyone could possibly want me.’
When Paul first left and had been gone for just over three months, I still refused to believe my marriage was truly over. My first reaction was to remove my rings and bag up his clothes, CDs and other paraphernalia. The second was to come off the pill. Despite much arguing he’d refused to have the snip. I’d been advised not to have the operation, something complicated to do with my insides, and I baulked at having a coil fitted. Throwing out the pill was like an act of freedom, of rebellion, but the freedom of the separation came at such a high price. I watched my boys hurting daily. Denis said nothing, but Andrew would say small throwaway things, inconsequential things that made me angry, upset and furious.
Paul’s leaving had devastated me but I hadn’t been happy in the marriage either. It was as if both of us were pulling apart with bungee ropes in opposite directions. The knock-over blow when we reached the end of the stretch was catastrophic but not unwelcome if I was being honest. I had tired of Paul. Of his habits, his arrogance, his monotone when he lectured me about anything. But I looked at my boys and I wept. I thought I would give it one last throw of the dice.
Denis was in Cork for a match and so I arranged for Andrew to stay with my parents. It was three months to the day since Paul had left and he was coming by to collect his books. We hadn’t spoken much since his departure. He had said he didn’t love me anymore and that he had found someone else: bare facts that didn’t need dressing up. It was very clinical and final.
Thinking of the single die in my hand I felt hollow and nervous but then I thought again of my children. I prepared one of my husband’s favourite meals. I wore a low cut blouse. I opened wine. When Paul stopped by, he raised an eyebrow, but he drank the wine and he ate the food and he took the sex offered him on a plate by his wife. He even stayed the night. Afterwards I lay stiff beside him listening to his familiar breathing. I felt cold and defeated, like a reclaimed prisoner. I finally fell asleep, a patchy and unsatisfying sleep spiked with unremembered dreams. When I woke, he was in me again; a mechanical and silent coupling. A coupling that spoke of daily routines, fixing the washing machine, putting out the bins, and cold dinners reheated in the microwave. He grunted and came, no words, no kiss, no caress. He rolled off me, and sat at the edge of the bed. ‘This makes no difference at all,’ he said coldly. Then he dressed and left.
Dry-eyed, I went to the surgery for the morning after pill and to have a coil fitted. ‘What happened?’ my doctor asked in some confusion. ‘The end of my marriage,’ I said.