This was the time of day he found it easiest to get up, when he could be sure of having the run of the quiet house. He was adept at leaving the room without disturbing her sleep: slippers by the bed and dressing gown hanging on the door. He’d kept the present, like all presents, behind the couch in the front room. It was easier to get things done while the children slept, so he quietly sought out the wrapping paper. The last time it was used they had a fight. A simple disagreement that escalated into three days of aftermath. Always is a stupid word. They both used the word, but his memory was never as good as hers, and her recall of events was not at all as he remembered them. She retired to bed after such fights and often he slept downstairs, making breakfast for the children, preparing their lunches. While leaving for work he would issue instructions to the children, and there were many evenings he arrived home to find she was still in bed. He accepted that it was his responsibility, saying the unthinkable and always stooping lower. Once in his sleep he had given her a black eye.
He found the paper in the broom closet in the kitchen, and used a box he had brought home from work, to make the wrapping easier. She had great taste and the lamp would make a beautiful present for his cousin, but he wished that she had bought a box. The lamp almost fit the box save for an inch or two in height and he decided to make do when he heard someone getting out of bed. He went to the kitchen and measured out cups of oats. He was standing stirring at the hob when the children came downstairs.
They disappeared quietly into the living room and he hoped they hadn’t woken her.
He left the porridge simmering, took the bagels from the bread bin and put them under the grill. The children only re-emerged when he called them to the table. He left the kitchen to wake her with coffee and avoided the fourth step from the top—because the creak annoyed him as much as it annoyed her. The room was dark and he heard her breathing. As he set the coffee on the floor beside the bed he thought he saw her smile. As discreet as a valet he left, returning minutes later with a toast tray and finding her still slumbering. He placed the tray beside the mirror on the table and gently opened the curtains.
He coughed gently into his elbow and said, ‘I thought the coffee might wake you.’
‘Mnphfnn,’ she answered pulling the duvet around her more.
He stood at the foot of the bed and began, ‘I’ve wrapped the lamp and the kids are having breakfast.’
She pulled a pillow over her head.
‘I brought up your breakfast,’ he said making for the door.
‘Go away,’ she answered.
He stopped at the door and closed his eyes. ‘We have to go in less than an hour.’ He issued it as an ultimatum.
‘Oh sweet, for Jesus sake. Go away. I’ll get up in a while.’ She kicked out as she spoke.
He wished that he could drive or that he hadn’t said that they’d go to the wedding. He didn’t know his cousin very well but each conversation with her included memories of happier times since forgotten. He had been looking forward to it but his enthusiasm annoyed his wife. In the last few weeks the wedding had loomed over her, threatening and ominous: his family and their friends, people she normally avoided, foisted onto her Saturday. It took all her strength to get out of bed after he mothered away getting dressed. Putting that kind of pressure on her wasn’t going to get him anywhere. She wouldn’t be able to drink and he couldn’t drive.
‘Yes Fiona, that’s beautiful. Mike, if you’re not careful you’ll be going like that.’
Hearing his cajoling and snapping almost pushed her back to bed, but she knew the trouble it would cause. She wished he had done something about a light for the mirror—she could hardly see herself. It was his own fault if they were going to be late.
The children were ushered downstairs. ‘Are you ready?’ he asked her at the door. A reply might ignite something and he would blame her. Sometimes she forgot what she ever saw in him; she just wished that it would work. There was a time when they were happy; but so much happened since then, things she couldn’t forget. If she dwelled on it she wouldn’t be able to move. Whatever she did was wrong. The wrong pace this morning. Wrong not getting a box for the lamp, not that he acknowledged that the lamp was unique. He had weeks to find a present but in the end she bought it and he spent more time complaining about the lack of a box than admiring the bloody thing. It seemed to her that she could do no right, but he kept quiet about it most of the time and then would just explode.
‘Five minutes,’ she managed to say. Part of her wanted to delay as long as possible and part of her kept plodding on, making time. She was going to look good. He hadn’t even noticed the stain on the elbow of his suit. She hoped that when he did he would feel self-conscious and might want to leave. They had to drive across two counties, back roads from his childhood. Her friend was in town later, she hadn’t seen her in weeks, and having instead to endure interminable hours of his family and their joviality was harsh punishment.
She finished her eyes and examined herself in the mirror. Morning weddings were all very well if you didn’t have to drive across half the country to get to them. His family, like him, annoyed her. They only met at weddings but she was sure they didn’t like her; that they thought she had held him back. Their smiles never hid what she knew were their real feelings. He knew that they never made her feel comfortable, but he ignored it.
He should have called her earlier but he daren’t put the clocks forward again. She never forgave him for that, even though he only meant it as a joke, something he should have saved for a moment such as this. He wasn’t going to say anything because that would only annoy her and cause delay or stop them completely. To pass time he made some sandwiches for the children. There was only cheese and mayonnaise. He put the sandwiches with some popcorn and bottles of water in a plastic shopping bag, and a couple of small packets of jellies into his pockets. He told the children to bring some toys for the journey and reminded Fi that Mike wouldn’t let her read unless he was distracted. When he went upstairs to fetch pillows and a duvet he didn’t say anything lest she feel that he was checking up on her. He moved silently and quickly and when he had arranged everything in the hall and was satisfied that nothing was forgotten, he loaded the boot. He gave Fiona a five-minute warning and brought Mike to the toilet.
He sat in the car with the children playing My Aunt Annie, waiting for her. When they finished he asked the children if they remembered any of the cousins they were going to meet. They couldn’t.
They heard the front door slam and watched her walk toward the car. She got in without looking at him.
‘There were crumbs all over the counter. I had to tidy the kitchen,‘ she said. The car was silent. She knew he was bristling. ‘We’ll make it,‘ she said attempting to lighten the mood. She even tried to smile.
He didn’t answer. She pulled on to the road.
They both felt wronged and wrong. Mike was playing with some plastic animals and Fi was reading. All was quiet in the car. Neither of them had found the right tone to ease the stress. One friend had said that he stopped calling to the house because of the tension in the air. That was a year ago. They brought it with them, cautious of what they might say, nervous that they might spark something terrifying.
‘Would you like to pick the tunes?’ she said as the car moved out of the city.
He played the CD she had recently bought. Such were their concessions: meagre and tentatively offered. He started explaining this branch of his family, where and when she had previously met them.
Her nervous smile jittered as he spoke. She didn’t know what to say. This was his past. She didn’t drag him into her past. She waited and listened as he explained how the bride’s father was his mother’s oldest brother. Their home place was near the turn off from the main road and closer to Kerry.
‘What time,’ she risked, ‘will we be able to leave?’
‘I didn’t think,’ he said. ‘Maybe ‘round midnight?’
She sighed. He didn’t know if it was what he said or because they had just turned a bend and were stuck behind a tractor.
‘It’s a bit late for the kids,’ she ventured, edging across the road.
‘I brought a duvet and some pillows,’ he said. ‘It’s not like we meet the family very often.’
‘I suppose,’ she conceded. ‘But if they get tired we’ll just go. I’m not leaving them alone in the car.’ His friends might think that acceptable.
‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘No. Of course we can leave. But if someone offers a bed?’
‘You said we could come home tonight,’ she said, and pulled out and overtook the tractor.
‘Or we could stay with my parents?’
‘Don’t do this,’ she said, decelerating into a turn.
‘Okay, midnight at the latest, Cinderella.’ He smiled at her but she was watching the road.
‘You could learn to drive,’ she said, looking at him for the first time since they left.
‘No doubt, it might take a bit of pressure off you.’
He had made this point before. She wanted to hiss at him for being so patronising. He never once had an inkling of learning to drive. She got the car before she had a licence and she loved to drive, but not like this. She would rather if he had arranged to travel himself.
After a mile of silence he mumbled: ‘You said you wanted to come. When I said I could go myself you said you didn’t want to be excluded, how important it was for the kids to meet relations.’
‘Look,’ she said, ‘I just want to make sure we get back at a reasonable hour. Midnight’s fine.’
Silence returned. Fi stopped reading and watched Mike lost in a cartoon world of talking plastic cows. She tried to remember when she was his age, just before school, how good things were, how her parents were always bringing her places—unlike now. Mike never saw a waterfall or paddled in the sea. Instead he had to meet cousins even she didn’t know, people from farms. Mike’s cows could make chocolate milk. She was used to her parents fighting and she had heard how important it was to meet these strangers who always talked about how much she had grown. As they drove through the countryside her father pointed in random directions.
‘Over there we used to…’
He was so lost in his stories that he didn’t realise that she couldn’t relate. He was teasing her with memories she could never have.
They arrived at Communion and snuck in. He smiled to his parents across the crowd and they nodded back.
‘What happened your elbow?’ she whispered as they settled in a pew at the back.
It was early to play her trump card but people were looking over and talking. She didn’t like to have to mingle with these strangers.
After the ceremony and the photographs they stood aghast, watching the bride being scooped up by two bikers as she stood in the road. A few people cheered and applauded and a parade of bikes drove by.
‘Good man, Shay,’ someone shouted, and his parents approached.
‘You made it,’ his father said, hand outstretched.
‘Fiona!’ his mother exclaimed. ‘You look divine. That’s a beautiful dress.’ She smiled, delighted.
‘Thanks gran, you know you got it for me.’ She smiled back. ‘And Mike,’ she said, holding his head in her hands, ‘you look such a grand young man.’
They followed his parents’ car to the reception. He caught up with all of his relatives and was enjoying himself so much that she had to remind him they had only half an hour left. The kids were playing and dancing with other children.
‘I just have to dance with the bride.’
After he danced with the bride he said that the bride and groom were about to leave and asked to wait a little longer. People made an arch that snaked around the room through which the bride and groom were jostled. Then came the invitations to stay. Half an hour late they hit the road, and halfway to the main road the fog rolled in thick and strong. He had to get out at a crossroads to read the sign.
As he stood there, trying to make out the town name, he was hoping that she would just drive away. In the car their children slept, warm under the quilt, and she thought of leaving him, just driving away, how easy it would be if he hadn’t gone and made her pregnant again.