‘Where are you going, Mammy?’

Three-year old Michael was sitting on his padded toilet seat. Deirdre was heading downstairs with an overnight case. ‘Just downstairs,’ she lied. Joe, her husband, was asleep. He’d come into the bathroom earlier while she was brushing her teeth, mumbled something unintelligible over the roar of his first pee and gone back to bed. As Deirdre slipped down the stairs, she heard her two-year-old daughter pad into her elder son’s room to tell him it was morning.

She stuck the note on the kitchen window over the sink with Blu-tak. No use leaving it on the kitchen table.The children would draw on it or knock it to the floor.As she reached for her coat and opened the front door, she hoped Joe would stir himself to lift Michael off the toilet. The thought of him trapped there, his pyjama trousers round his ankles, nearly made her turn back.

She closed the door quietly behind her. The rain was a soft mist. Her ankles and toes were damp by the time she reached the bus-stop in front of the shuttered shopping centre. Lowering her umbrella, she rolled round the timetable cylinder until the bus times to Dun Laoghaire faced her. The next one was in half an hour. She walked across the near-empty car park to see if there was anywhere she could get a cup of tea. Anne’s Pantry was just opening up and she settled herself and her case at a table near the window and watched the cars trickle in.

The shopping mall was soon speckled with movement. Men clutched Saturday-morning newspapers, women pushed plastic-covered buggies. Deirdre checked her watch. Nine o’clock. The ordinary business of the day was starting. She didn’t want to be caught up in it. She didn’t want to be seen. Back at the bus-stop cars and lorries were now shooting past. Her bag lay conspicuous on the pavement beside her. She willed the bus to arrive. It finally lumbered round the corner like a long-lost frier1d. She boarded it and allowed its wide wheels to sweep her away.

Fifteen minutes later the bus descended into Dun Laoghaire. Here the low, grey sky was pierced with masts and flecked with white. White sails, white flashes of gull feathers, white sea foam. In place of the flat, grey tarmac of the shopping centre, a silver-tinged, undulating sea. The white ferry from England was docking so slowly it barely seemed to move. She felt obliged to stay there till it had completed its cumbersome manoeuvres. Then, maybe her mind would have cleared enough for her to plan what to do next.

She interrupted her vigil, deciding to check out the fare to Holyhead. The queue in the ticket office was short and the reservations clerk perky. Deirdre worked out she would have enough for a single fare, a train ticket to London and a few days’ accommodation. She would have to find work straight away. She’d find something. She had word-processing skills and wouldn’t mind shop or restaurant work. Her heart beat harder with the possibilities, then constricted as she thought of her eldest child. At six, he’d be the one to miss her most. She thanked the clerk before the tears spilled over, and walked back on to the street.

The hotels along the seafront caught her eye. It would be nice to stay in one of the top rooms, looking out to sea. It would almost be like being on a ship. She walked up the steps to the first hotel. She booked in for one night.

The room was cold. She left her bag there and walked back down the newly carpeted stairs, admiring the glint of the gold runner down the sides. She handed in her key and walked out into Dun Laoghaire, feeling like a holiday-maker.

She browsed round the shops, light-hearted. She had nothing to worry about, no children to dress or feed or pick up after, no shopping to do. Upstairs at Easons she picked up a book of piano tunes for nursery rhymes, attracted by the colourful drawings on the cover. She bought herself Angela’s Ashes. In Dunnes she veered away from the children’s clothes, though not before half a dozen things that her children needed had popped into her head. She drank strong, frothy coffee in a cafe full of chattering young people and later ordered lunch in a pub. In the afternoon she walked along the seafront as far as Sandycove. She stopped to watch the swimmers braving the icy waves, then entered Joyce’sTower and climbed up the narrow, worn, winding steps to the top. The fresh wind beat at her cheeks and blew her hair into tangles. She felt full of light and air and ready for flight.

Walking back along the main road, she passed in front an auctioneer’s, and was drawn by the dark furniture piled up ready for the auction advertised for the next morning. She wondered how much an upright piano would cost. Its carved, polished wood seemed to glow, reflecting the oblique pink rays of the setting winter sun. She imagined herself bidding for it, caught up in the excitement of the chase. She knew nothing about pianos-nothing about music except, briefly, the pop music of the Seventies. She would love her children to learn to play, to take it for granted. Somehow, pianos conjured up happy, harmonious homes and fulfilled families. She wanted her children to have everything she had missed out on as a child. Deirdre had grown up in brooding silence interrupted by bouts of shouting. Any glimpses she had of friends’ parents being friendly towards each other she put down to expert acting on their part. People only pretended to be nice. Reality was the way things were at home as a child, and now at home as an adult. The brooding silences and shouting matches had repeated themselves, a never-ending circle of hate, her children now the victims.

Back at the hotel she showered and changed for dinner, taking her book down with her in lieu of a dinner partner. The hotel dining-room was three-quarters empty and the food indifferent. She ordered some wine to make it more of an occasion and sipped at it as she read her book between courses. By the time the dessert was put in front of her, she was weeping. Hot, fat tears fell into the custard on her dish. She kept her head down and the waiter seemed not to notice. The book was too, too sad. She could not bear to read any more about the hardships those children had endured.

 

Deirdre slept well between the cool hotel sheets. In the morning she jumped out of bed to stare at the sun rising over the sea. She enjoyed her breakfast, revel-ling in being served. Then she walked briskly down to Sandycove for the ten o’clock auction. The doors were open and already people milled around the numbered items. A few people were planking the piano keys. She sidled up to hear their judgements. ‘Doesn’t seem to be any woodworm,’ said one. Good, thought Deirdre, who would never have considered the possibility of such a thing. ‘Not sure about the pedals,’ said another, ‘may need fixing.’ ‘OK for a beginner,’ another said. As they wandered away, Deirdre pressed one of the notes. It seemed to stick a little coming back up. She tried some others. They seemed fine. Then she got out of the way as a young man started to play a little tune. She envied his casual ability.

Later, her mouth felt so dry that she wondered if she would be able to utter anything. But she didn’t need to. She only had to raise a hand. At £100 she hesitated, calculating furiously. By the time she raised her hand the bidding had gone up to £130. Now the price didn’t matter, only the piano and what it could offer her children. At £160 nobody challenged her. She relaxed as the hammer came down and the auctioneer announced the piano sold to the lady in the black coat. Name? Her voice came out like a squeak. She repeated her name, this time loud, triumphant. People turned round. She smiled at them.

The delivery men offered her a lift home. She squeezed in the front with them, laughing at their jokes. The piano was secured with rope in the back. When they pulled up at the house, Joe opened the door, looking puzzled. Deirdre jumped down from the van, landing lightly.