The kitchen ceiling was creaking, which meant that Momma was now awake and ready for her breakfast. But Julia hadn’t quite finished her coffee and so she sipped slowly, listening for a few minutes before giving way. Momma didn’t exactly jump up and down on the floor when she was ready for her breakfast, but then she didn’t have to: she knew how to make her bed creak loudly enough. Julia put an egg on to boil. She set the timer carefully. Momma liked her egg boiled for exactly three and a half minutes, no more and no less.
When the egg was boiled to Julia’s satisfaction and the tray set, she carried it upstairs and pushed open the bedroom door with one large, rough-skinned toe. There was Momma sitting up in bed as usual. She looked charming. She was propped up on her snow-white pillows, wearing her pale bedjacket that set off the bed’s sheets and counterpane so well. It would be perfect if she would just sit back on her pillows, smile, look benign, accept what she was given. But Momma was neither accepting nor benign.
‘Good morning, Momma.’
‘What’s the weather like, Julia?’ No good morning to you or anything else.
‘Pretty gloomy, Momma.’
‘Only, I would love to have a white Christmas. Wouldn’t you, Julia?’ Momma always took the weather in Ireland so personally.
‘Oh yes,’ she agreed. ‘That would be nice.’ Julia wasn’t small and thin like her mother: she was a big girl and she had a tendency to awkwardness, to slip and slide on icy mornings. She could do without any snow.
Momma transported herself back to New York City and the snowy Christmases of times past as Julia moved heavily around the room, opening curtains and settling the counterpane straight on the white bed. The Armenian gentleman who kept the grocery around the corner from her married home on Staten Island and the little Moroccan gentleman who sold such good bread and the local diner where a still-girlish Momma would be taken to breakfast from time to time: Julia had heard it all before. She settled the breakfast tray comfortably on Momma’s knees. Dublin just didn’t compare, Momma liked to say—it was spoilt for her now. Maybe, she would muse, maybe she would have been better off if she had never come back to Ireland. Maybe she ought to have stayed in New York. Of course, Julia had made this impossible; and that was a shame.
Julia herself had grown up in New York but Momma hardly ever mentioned this. She seemed to associate Julia’s childhood with her husband. He had gone off to Annapolis with his new girlfriend years before and there they still were, married now and apparently still happy and prosperous all these years later. Momma pretended he was dead. He had dropped dead of a heart attack, was her version of events. It had been a terrible trauma for her, she said.
‘Why, the sort of food you just can’t get in Dublin—even today,’ Momma was sighing now. She sounded especially New York this morning. She looked with sad patience at the perfect tray: at the toast and the coffee, the pot of orange marmalade and the beautiful egg perched in its cup. Then she looked up at Julia, who was now standing with her back to the bed and looking out of the window.
‘Tell me, Julia: why can’t you get such good bread, such good coffee in Dublin? That’s what I want to know.’
‘I don’t know, Momma,’ Julia said.
‘I find myself wondering about this every day,’ said Momma. She gave another little fretful sigh and then moved the pot of marmalade from one side of the tray to the other.
‘But we have good marmalade here and that’s a comfort. So it isn’t all bad. They don’t know how to do marmalade in New York even today. And that’s no good. Is it, Julia?’
‘No, that’s no good.’
‘No, that’s no good,’ and there was a silence for a moment. Then Julia began moving towards the door and Momma looked down at the tray again. She tapped the top of her egg and discovered that it was just that little bit too soft.
Julia turned, just in time to watch her mother lift one side of the tray. The coffee pot, the plate of toast, the jug of milk and cup and saucer and marmalade pot and that beautiful brown egg—they all slid off the tray and onto the bedroom floor. The coffee pot caught the counterpane as it fell, and muddy-brown drops of coffee splashed and spoiled the pristine white sheets. Then Momma dumped the tray itself onto the ground. She was a great believer in direct action.
‘You know I can’t eat a lightly boiled egg,’ she said and she sat up very straight on her pillows. ‘And it can’t be a hard-boiled egg either. It has to be three and a half minutes, no more and no less. How long did you cook this egg for, Julia?’
‘Three and a half minutes, Momma.’
‘You did not,’ Momma said, or rather hissed at her. ‘That was a three-minute egg, you little bitch.’ She raised her voice— just a notch, but enough. ‘A three-minute egg! You little bitch!’
After this, she said nothing else but instead hopped smartly out of bed and off to the bathroom, leaving Julia standing and watching the coffee and egg and marmalade all seeping steadily into the floor. Momma was right about one thing: it had been carefully timed to be a three-minute egg. But she was wrong about another: Julia was not little. She was big-boned and hefty and almost forty and now she left the mess on the floor and went downstairs to finish her own breakfast.
Momma was very demanding, was the problem. The three and a half minute egg was just one example. Three minutes was too short a boil and four minutes was too long. It had to be three and a half minutes; she had told Julia so on many occasions. But the real problem with Momma, Julia thought as she plastered too much butter onto her toast, was this: that she never would appreciate what Julia did for her. Julia topped the butter with quite a lot of apricot jam. And she did so much: the cooking and the shopping and the organising of entertainments; she had even found this house to live in. She always felt taken aback—over and over again she felt taken aback—that her life would take such a direction. She really had never imagined that she would end up being forty years old and living in a rented house with a demanding mother. Really, it took her breath away when she thought about it. She bit into the overburdened toast, angrily, and a large globule of butter plopped onto her plate.
She was still sitting there and looking out the window when Momma presented herself at the kitchen door.
‘I’m going into town now. Julia? Honey? I said I’m going into town.’
‘So I’ll see you later. Will you be in later?’
‘I will, yes.’
‘What sort of time?’
‘About six. There are a few people coming over later. Christmas drinks. I told you.’
‘So you did. Well, that will be nice, won’t it? I’ll see you about six then.’
Julia looked at her, standing there so righteous and upright and Momma looked back and said:
‘I have a right to expect that I will be looked after properly in my old age, honey. Haven’t I?’ She didn’t wait for a reply. ‘I looked after you, didn’t I? And of course I kept everything together very well, given the circumstances. Maybe you don’t appreciate, Julia, how difficult things were for me. Such a difficult situation that you put me in; and I’ve looked after you very well; and it’s a shame I’m not appreciated as a result.’ She looked over Julia’s shoulder at the clock and without stopping for breath said: ‘My, I’ll be late.’
When Momma was gone, Julia went into the living room and built up the fire and thought that people just didn’t understand. Everyone thought Momma was like a little bird sitting in her chair, because that was how they always saw her: settled in her armchair by the fire in the evenings and smiling away at guests and asking interested questions. Only sometimes, when she downed one Campari and orange too many and got maybe a little bit argumentative and raised her voice just a little bit—well, maybe then people could glimpse another side to Momma. After maybe three Camparis, Momma would begin to talk about Northern Ireland and the Struggle and her fundraising activities when she had lived in New York and all the rest of it and that was embarrassing. Also, Momma had a bad habit of ordering drinks from Julia as though Julia was a waitress. She would just hold out her empty glass for a refill without even saying ‘please’, sometimes without saying anything at all. At moments like this, people could surely see how Momma might be a bit of a handful. But then, old people could be a bit set in their ways, couldn’t they? You just had to grin and bear it. And she was such a character, people said. Wasn’t she a character? Wasn’t she?
Julia had drummed up a fairly good attendance for her party, though she wouldn’t quite call most of the people in the room friends. There were some people from the temping agency, some people she had met over the last few months while she was temping in other offices, a few neighbours. Most people were going on to pubs or other parties later; the room would probably be empty by ten o’clock. That was the way it usually went. The doorbell rang.
Michelle was at the door. She was in the temping agency too—thirty or so and a single mother. And tonight she had the evidence of this with her. Julia stared down at the pram on her doorstep, in which a baby lay asleep. She felt a little dizzy. Surely Michelle hadn’t brought her baby with her.
‘Do you mind, Julia?’ Michelle said breathlessly. ‘Only the babysitter cancelled on me and I was all set to go out for the night and now I have to stay in, so I thought I’d just come round here and get out of the house for an hour anyway. Merry Christmas.’ She pecked Julia’s cheek. ‘Imagine! It’s Christmas and here I am and can’t get out of the house. But she’ll be no trouble; I’ll put her upstairs if you like.’ She pushed the buggy past Julia into the narrow hall. ‘Will I put her upstairs? Oh—I brought you some wine.’
Julia took the proffered bottle and closed the door slowly behind Michelle and her buggy. She did mind—and before she could muster up a word, Momma appeared in the doorway, drawn by the unexpected flap of noise and bustle. ‘And who’s this?’ she asked loudly and the baby woke up and began to cry.
‘Oh, look! Julia!’
Julia looked, again.
‘The treasure!’ Momma cooed and bent down to the child. ‘What a treasure. Though I’ve met you before, haven’t I?’ Momma was good with other people’s children, Julia always noticed, in a way she had never been with her own child.
‘Oh yes, you have,’ Michelle said. ‘This is Lauren.’
‘Lauren! Of course I remember. Hello sweetheart!’ Momma and Michelle beamed at Lauren and then at each other. Julia looked up the stairs.
‘We can put her in my room,’ she said flatly. But Momma looked shocked and said, over Lauren’s continued wails:
‘Oh no, she’ll have to come into the party. We can’t put such a treasure upstairs. You’ll come to the party, won’t you, sweetheart?’
‘She’ll like that,’ Michelle said to them and she scooped up Lauren and took her into the living room.
‘A little more welcoming, honey, I think,’ Momma said.
‘It isn’t the right place for small children, Momma.’
Momma looked around the hall. ‘The right place? Around you, do you mean, honey?’ She watched in satisfaction as Julia’s face flushed an ugly scarlet. ‘Well, you’re probably right there. But why don’t you make a little bit of an effort, dear, if you can bear it. If it won’t kill you.’
Momma was always rubbing it in. When Julia was twenty and they were still living in Staten Island, she had killed a little girl just exactly the same age as Lauren. She hadn’t meant to, of course—she had been babysitting and the baby just wouldn’t stop crying, so Julia had given her a bit of a shake. Then suddenly the baby was dead. Julia had phoned Momma and Momma had come over and looked fairly coolly at the child and observed that she didn’t look as though she had been shaken to death. There were no marks on her. She just looked dead. There were ways of managing this situation, Momma said. Julia should put the baby back into bed and call the ambulance and say that it looked like a cot death to her, and call the parents in their restaurant and say the same thing. Well—not so much say. It would, Momma suggested, be more a case of gasp and cry.
And this plan had worked. Nobody suspected a thing. Well, as Momma said, why would they? Cot deaths were sad but hardly unknown. Instead, people felt sorry for Julia and told her she was a brave girl and it was a terrible thing to have happened to her. And they were right: it was a terrible thing to have happened to Julia. After all, Momma had been making her pay ever since.
Julia followed Momma into the living room.
‘I would only have the one,’ Michelle was telling the assembly. ‘I don’t want any more than one.’
‘I only had the one myself,’ Momma said and Michelle nodded and waited for another opportunity to break in. ‘I never regretted having only one, and I don’t suppose you will either, dear. Of course, my husband died a few years after Julia was born and so I had no option, but I would have been happy with one no matter what. I think we all need a little refill, Julia honey.’
Someone asked politely: ‘And so, did you come straight back to Ireland when your husband died?’
‘No, oh no,’ Momma said and glanced at Julia. ‘We stayed around, honey, didn’t we? She smiled at Julia. ‘We stayed around until Julia was in her early twenties. Then we came to Ireland. You would have been—what—twenty-two, honey, is that right?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Something like that. We thought that Julia would be better off in Ireland. In a smaller place.’ Momma always said that. From the way she said it, she always managed to make it sound as though Julia had suffered from a mental illness and had been brought back to Ireland for her own good.
‘I loved New York and would have happily stayed there.’ Momma looked around the room and now beamed at Julia. ‘But it was better to come back, wasn’t it honey?’
After a moment, Julia nodded.
As Julia had predicted, the house was empty by ten o’clock but for herself and Momma, who had several too many Camparis and had fallen asleep in her now-reclaimed armchair. Julia put a CD of Christmas carols into the CD player—it had come free with one of the Sunday newspapers—and pressed ‘Play’. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, the CD player told Julia and she knelt down beside the armchair and spoke gently.
Momma opened her eyes. ‘Oh,’ she said and blinked at Julia. ‘Did I fall asleep?’
‘Only for a minute. Time for you to be in bed.’
‘I think it is.’ Momma sat up in her chair and yawned. ‘My, yes—I really think it is.’ She got to her feet, unsteadily and Julia guided her upstairs. Before long, Momma was in bed, tucked up among the new crisp sheets and was drifting off again. Julia moved the curtains and peered out into the darkness.‘Goodnight Momma.’
‘Still no snow?’
‘Still no snow, I’m afraid.’
‘No white Christmas again this year. Well, never mind. Don’t forget to switch off the landing light.’
In a few moments, Momma was asleep. Julia moved from the window to the bed, watched the bedclothes slowly rise and slowly fall, took up one of the fat square pillows. Momma gave a sudden start and a snort as Julia pushed the pillow firmly into her face.
‘There now, Momma,’ she said to the pillow. ‘Lie still. Here’s that white Christmas you wanted.’ She pushed it more firmly still into Momma’s face. ‘I hope it’ll do.’
And she held the pillow there steadily and tightly, at the same time pinning Momma’s arms and hands to the bed with one large knee. In the face of all this, there wasn’t too much Momma could do; and her struggles, such as they were, ended after only a few seconds. All the same, Julia held the pillow where it was for quite a long time. She wanted to be sure that all was well.
Downstairs, the choir on the CD had moved on to ‘Silent Night’, and the music drifted through the quiet house. Julia admired the beautiful whiteness of the pillow she had pinned over Momma’s face. She really did have a way with whites.
Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…
Really, Julia thought, I was silly not to have done this years ago. Years and years ago.
Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.