Pat J Mullan
Dennis (17 year old son)
As a family, we tend to go with the flow. We avoid direct confrontation. It’s not worth it. Don’t get me wrong. Mother’s a very caring woman, and a very proud woman. Proud of her husband and his job. Proud of her house, her car, her garden. Proud of the clothes perfectly displayed for drying, without a crease or wrinkle, on the line. And of course, proud most of all of her family – us. The perfect kids.
Her relentless, perfectionist regime has taken its toll on all the family to a greater or lesser degree over the years. My father recalls a relaxed care-free girlfriend, wife and mother. None of the rest of us can. Our memories are of endless chores – cleaning, scrubbing, washing and tidying (ourselves and our rooms). Of going to hurling, badminton, drama, French and rugby while still in national school. Of preparing frantically for visitors coming. Of ensuring top grades in exams. Of cutting the lawn twice a week, even in February. Of feeling we were never quite living up to her standards or expectations. And our friends never measured up either.
Some of us have better coping mechanisms than others. Peggy has not been seen or heard of since she ran off with the Hare Krishna three months ago. The straw that broke the camel’s back in her case, was not being picked for the lead in The Pirates of Penzance. She couldn’t face mother’s disappointment yet again. Mother tells everyone that she’s at college in the Sorbonne studying French literature. We’re not permitted to mention her unless we are telling the ‘official’ story. You’d swear mother believes it herself.
I always have my music that I can lose myself in when not ‘on duty’ or not the subject of one of her ‘standards’ diatribes. The odd recreational smoke helps too.
At sixteen, the twins seem to be able to go along with the regime better than the rest of us. Of course they have always been able to communicate and confide in each other without speech. Then there’s Brenda, the youngest in the family. At fourteen, she’s at a difficult age and openly rebellious. This takes the heat off me, but I do worry how she will manage when I go to Galway. She’ll be left on her own with just the twins and the parents. The focus on her will be even more intense.
Another three months will see me finished at the Brothers and off to college. Mother insisted that my first choice on the CAO college application form is law at Trinity. But I know I won’t get enough points for law. I should get enough for Arts at UCG and escape from this zoo at last.
Brenda (14 year old daughter)
She definitely hates me. I should report her to the Health Board for cruelty. And the twins get away with everything. Talk about favouritism. And it’s getting worse. She wouldn’t even let me shower this morning before school. Just because I was three minutes late for my scheduled time. I was last on the list and no one coming after me. Going to school smelling of sweat. Gross.
I call them friends but really they’re just people I share lessons with. We meet on the bus to school, behind the huts in the playground for a quick drag and on the oh so occasional nights out at the rugby club. I know I come across to them as a great laugh, someone who doesn’t take life too seriously, someone who’d do anything just for the hell of it. Like that little incident last week with the glue on the teachers seat. God, I was nervous but no one else was up for it and Christ, Thursdays are such a bore. Old Bradley nearly had a seizure when he realised what had happened. But serves him right the lazy bastard, making us copy out all them lines. Thinks we’re all thick.
You can’t have any real friends, when you live in a family like mine. I had the girls from school over just the once when Mother was visiting her sister in Kilkenny. I had to trash my room up a bit to make it look normal. I just couldn’t let them meet her. No way. She’s not a normal mother. And we’re not a normal family. Imagine bringing Ian here. Oh My God! That would be the last I’d see of him. She’d be getting him to wash her car and telling him to chew each mouthful of food thirty-two times before swallowing and God only knows what else.
Tidying her bloody magazines on the coffee table for the last half hour – all seventy-two of them. Stacked in four identical vertical piles on the bottom shelf in strict date order. She inspects them every day and a single one out of place is enough to set her off telling me how useless I am, how I can never do anything right. It’s those two bitches of twins that deliberately move them around just to get me in trouble.
The rota is posted on the kitchen notice board every Friday evening, alongside her House Rules. She says the work is fairly shared between all of us. No way is that the case. And I end up having the worst jobs. I’m not allowed to cut the grass and Dennis doesn’t have to do any baking. Cutting grass would be a lot better than baking brown bread. At least outside with the noise of the mower she couldn’t interfere the way she does when I’m baking or cleaning. And I always get stuck with the magazines. She hates me. If the girls at school only knew what I have to put up with! I’m on the daily bathroom routine this week too – daily scrubbing showers, sinks and toilet bowls with the Marigold gloves on. Dennis is the worst offender –
shaving scum marks in the sink and skid marks on the toilet. Disgusting.
But the two twins – they haven’t one bloody brain between the two of them – are the limit. They go out of their way to get me in trouble. Like the day before yesterday, they told mother about the glue on the teacher’s chair. She wants to bring me to the principal and then apologise to Old Bradley. The school doesn’t even know it was me that did it. Like seriously, I’d be the last person Old Bradley would suspect – just because I’m generally top of his class in exams and essays. I’m sticking to my guns and denying any involvement in it. She hasn’t a clue.
Nobody talks about what’s wrong with her. The only conversation in this house is about rules and schedules and standards. And how useless I am. And what the neighbours will think. I know what the neighbours think – they know she’s off her tree and they think we’re all mad.
If it wasn’t for Dennis I’d have cracked long ago. He’s always stirring things, always having to have the last word, always mocking for the fun of it, yet he watches out for me. But how could he be so stupid? He’s sure to be caught, if he doesn’t kill himself first. Upstairs taking hard-core drugs again and he thinks she won’t find out. He must be hooked on LSD at this stage. When she finds out it won’t only be him that will get in trouble. I’ll be grounded. The searches will begin again. You can have nothing personal in this house. She’ll see drugs everywhere and that’ll be the end of the rugby disco. Ever.
Dennis thinks he’ll escape to Galway by making sure he gets less than five hundred and thirty five points in the Leaving. She’ll make him repeat, no question. And poor Dad. He doesn’t know where to turn to between mother and that nosey bitch Monica across the street. Protecting us, keeping mother on the rails and Monica at arm’s length.
You can’t talk to her. She’s angry all the time. She has ruined my life. The Hare Krishna isn’t for me. Maybe Green Peace is the answer, especially if Dennis goes to Galway.
If only Martin would pull his weight a bit more. He’s never home and he’s not tough enough with the children. He undermines my position. Does he not see how exhausting it is for me? He never does the rota and he even avoids the limited tasks I put him down for. He must know that a proper home and family life doesn’t just happen. Everything must be planned and everyone has a role to play. And everyone needs to do their share. If only Brenda and Dennis especially could understand. The twins seem to be able to work it, so why can’t the rest?
Martin goes out of his way to avoid conflict, whether with me or the children. He’s the General Manager at Dowling’s. I know they pay well and he gets a new Audi A6 every two years, and we do get to sit at the Dowling’s table in the hospitality tent in the reserved enclosure at Punchestown races on Ladies’ Day every year. But he spends far too much time there after five o’clock when he should be at home, with me and with his family. And then there’s all the community stuff he does at the weekends and evenings. He just can’t say no to outsiders. That Monica one is up to no good too. He thinks I don’t know.
Standards must be maintained. There’s just so much to do to keep things even half-right.
He’s such a bad example for the kids.
And Peggy gone without a trace…
The Twins (16 year old daughters)
“Brenda’s a retard.“
“Who are you telling? She gives Mother such a hard time.”
“Yea, goes out of her way to provoke her, then we all suffer.”
“Yea, like last week at Mass.”
“I could have killed her. Who does she think she is? Going into the wrong seat.”
“And then we suffer all through lunch with Mother in a foul humour.”
“What about these for Friday night?”
“Perfect. Red’s our colour. Nice short hem too. Let’s put them on now and go and torment Brenda. Tell her she should be going out with us on Friday night.”
“Get her to ask Mother.”
“Jesus, yea. She falls for it every time, doesn’t she?”
Peggy (18 year old daughter)
I know I should never have left. I should have gone straight to Dad. But I felt cornered with nowhere to go. And I know he’d do anything for me or for any of us but he’d never overrule her outright. Confrontation is not his style. Well that’s what I thought that morning. I couldn’t face her again. But you know Mother may have been right, I should have been Mabel in the Pirates. I was the best and I had put so much work into it. And Mother had told all her friends. That was the trouble. I’d let her down again. For me, half the attraction at the time was that Rory O’Sullivan was playing Frederic. And that probably tipped the teacher’s decision in favour of Fiona O’Mahony.
That morning when I ran out the door following her tirade, I didn’t know where I was going. I hitched a lift to Dublin on the dual carriageway and booked two nights in Isaac’s Hostel in the city centre. That’s where I met a girl called Clarissa. She had left her home in Limerick a week before but she now had a plan that I readily fell in with. A bus to somewhere in Co Cavan near the border, on an island in Lough Erne, she had said. A peace community. Free accommodation. Sounded good and we’d be company for each other. We made the call and were given instructions to get the Donegal Express bus from Busárus, the Number 30, and get off at Belturbet and Rashid would collect us.
To be fair, the Hare Krishna were very welcoming. And such happy carefree people, singing, chanting and dancing. When they found out that I played the piano they began teaching me the harmonium – a sort of cross between a small piano and an accordion. And the music kind of grew on you with the rhythmic chanting, the clashing cymbals and primal percussion beat. But no meat, fish or eggs and all those grains, fruit spices and pulses was a major challenge.
I was largely happy there for the best part of three months. No pressure and time to reflect. There was no rota and no room inspections. I could participate in as much with the other members of the community as I wanted. Yoga was interesting and therapeutic. Clarissa disappeared after two weeks mainly for dietary reasons, though she did miss her mother. I was content in the relaxed atmosphere and decided to give it a few more weeks. I was getting attached to the harmonium and the encouragement the Hare Krishna gave me. And Rashid was a listener, without making judgments and he encouraged me to answer my own questions and to make my own decisions after thinking them through. And he persuaded me to make the phone call to Dad’s office. He even cycled with me to the phone box at the cross on the Eniskillen Road and a week later he escorted me to the Seven Horse Shoes Hotel in Belturbet to meet Dad.
Dad was so relieved to get the phone call from me at work that day and there was a tear in his eye when we met in the hotel foyer. What he told me explained a lot about Mother – the car crash, nearly twenty years ago. She had been driving. Her younger sister, Margaret never recovered from the head injuries she got. Mother suffered a broken collar bone and ribs but otherwise was okay. At least physically. She believes she killed little Margaret, even though the accident wasn’t her fault. She’s been living with the guilt since, we never knew.
Things got worse after the twins were born and the post-natal depression. The obsession with the routine daily tasks began then – something solid that she latched on to. He thinks it may have got her through her worst days. And me named after Margaret.
Dad and Auntie Claire in Kilkenny persuaded mother to go to special one-to-one therapy sessions in Dublin. She’s been to four so far. He thinks if she sticks with them there’s a good chance she’ll get there.
God! What have I done to her? He then asked me if I’d come home. That this would be a big help. I didn’t know what to think. Did she want me home? I agreed to think about it and give him a call in a week. I’ll ask Rashid for his advice.
Peggy leaving triggered something in her, made her begin to question her own judgement. She’s beginning to realise that there is something wrong with her, thank God. There has been progress, slow, but progress all the same, over the last few weeks.
The kids don’t really see it yet as she still clings to the routine at home of enforcing the rules where the running of the house is concerned. This morning I saw another one of her flare-ups. Brenda was the target this time. She put a side plate in the top tray of the dishwasher where only cups should be.
But hopefully change can come with time. She now accepts that she’s not always the best judge where decisions need to be made about herself or the family. She’s beginning to rely on Claire and myself a bit more. And she’s on the phone to Claire most days now – a good sign.
Winning the children over will be a major challenge. Especially Brenda and Peggy. The twins will take it all in their stride. Dennis will be okay once he knows the story and, with his help, we should be able to get Brenda to at least stop being openly hostile to her mother.
Lunch in the Manor Inn with Dennis, Peggy and herself next Saturday will be a start. If all goes well we’ll arrange something for the twins and Brenda the following week. Get Peggy home. And Monica will have to find someone else to amuse her.
Maybe we can begin to establish some form of normal family life together again.
Pat J Mullan grew up in rural north Derry, and now lives at Eadestown, near Naas in Co. Kildare, with his wife, also called Pat (Patricia). They have three adult children. He attended St.Columb’s College in Derry City as a boarder and went to Trinity College in Dublin. Pat worked in the health services and in Irish Rail, and now works part-time in Dublin. He writes short stories and the occasional poem. His stories have been published in Spontaneity, The Galway Review, Paper Swans, The Incubator, and Word Bohemia. He is one of the founding members of the Naas Creative Writing Group. Pat can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @pat_mullan.
Deep Water Literary Journal
2015 - Issue 2 - August