Margaret Cahill is an Offaly native, now living in Limerick.
She writes short stories and flash fiction and has been published in Revival, Boyne Berries and The Linnet’s Wings.
She was long-listed for the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award 2012.
By Margaret Cahill
Pauline was weeding the small bed of Dahlias out the front the first day she met Brenda. She hated how quiet the whole road had become. Her children and all their friends were grown up now and living in Dublin or commuter-belt towns in Meath and Kildare. She was embarrassed to think of how excited she had been to move into the estate when Bill and she had gotten married. It had just been built, the first one in town and it had seemed the height of sophistication and modernity to her. There was no worrying about wells drying up or emptying septic tanks. She liked the neatness and order of the little boxed houses, far from the mucky yards and falling-down sheds she had grown up around. She couldn’t believe that was thirty-five years ago but the ache she felt in her hip, as she bent down to pluck a clump of chickweed from the soil, reminded her of just how long ago it had been and added to her weariness.
She hadn’t noticed a car pull in across the road until she stood up. She eyed the banger parked two doors up at O’Donoghue’s old house. The place had been empty for months and had a heavily listing “For Rent or Sale” sign in the un-mown front garden. She didn’t think anyone would move in, not with all the new estates that had popped up closer to town. She was mortified to be caught staring at the black-sack-filled car when a woman emerged from the front door. Before Pauline had time to look away the figure was waving over at her with great enthusiasm. She cautiously raised her arm in reply but the new neighbour didn’t seem to sense her reservation and marched straight across the road and invited Pauline over for a house-warming drink that night.
“I couldn’t very well say no,” she said to Bill as she recounted the scene to him minutes later. “I’d have made something up but you know how bad I am at lying. Sure you can come with me.”
She was anxious to have some backup. This Brenda woman didn’t seem like her cup of tea at all.
“You’d think she was on her way to the dump, not moving house,” she said. “She had everything in black sacks.”
“No, no,” Bill replied with a knowing smirk on his face. “I’ll leave you ladies to it. Besides, there’s a match on tonight.”
Pauline frowned at him but knew there was no point trying to change his mind. He had become even more obsessed with football and news since he retired and nothing would drag him away from the TV on a Friday night, or any other night for that matter. She’d have to go alone.
She was surprised to find that she enjoyed herself that night.
“Sorry, I can’t find the Waterford crystal just now,” Brenda said, shrugging her shoulders as she handed Pauline a mug of vodka and coke. “The damned butler must have forgotten to pack it.”
It was the first of many fits of laughter they had that first night. Pauline found out that Brenda had just divorced her husband, quit her job in an old folk’s home and moved to Ballybishop for a fresh start and a waitressing job at the hotel.
“What about your children?” Pauline asked, shocked that she would leave her family and life behind just like that.
“They’re old enough to look after themselves. I’ve been cooking dinners and wiping people’s arses all my life. This,” she said, pointing her cigaretted fingers at Pauline, “is me time. It’s all about me from here on in.”
Pauline thought about Mark and Grainne and how much she still missed them. She tried not to ring them too often. They always sounded like they had something more important to do whenever she called.
She was tipsy going home that night and felt like a teenager again as she crept into the house trying not to wake Bill. She needn’t have worried. She could hear his bear-like snores from the bottom of the stairs.
Friday night became their regular night. Pauline would drop over to Brenda’s around nine and they would sit in the kitchen chatting and not notice the hours pass. Brenda would say and do things Pauline wouldn’t even dream of. She was just back from a Greek holiday and recounted an incident involving a beach hut and a man half her age that made Pauline blush. She hadn’t realised it had been so long since she’d had fun, until she was wiping away tears of laughter and clutching her stomach in pain at Brenda’s stories.
She began to look forward to Friday nights. She found herself checking her hair in the hall mirror on the way out the odd time. Then she started wearing the new tops Grainne had bought her for Christmas. She even picked up a couple of new lipsticks for herself. She didn’t want Brenda to think she had let herself go. Pauline was only five years older than her but she thought Brenda looked stunning for her age. She had a great figure and wasn’t afraid to show it off in tight jeans and cowboy boots. Pauline used to think it was tacky to show that much cleavage, but Brenda somehow pulled it off.
Pauline started to call into the hotel for coffee whenever she was in town, which seemed to be more often than usual these days. She didn’t intentionally seek Brenda out but often found herself sipping coffee in the bar and looking around expectedly for her. On the days they bumped into each other, Pauline acted like it was a coincidence. On the days they didn’t, she would sit and swirl the dregs of her cup round and round, delaying going home. Sometimes the weather obliged and she’d tell herself she was waiting until the shower ended or the wind died down.
Last Friday Pauline stopped at the hotel on her way home from Tesco.
“Hey you,” she heard Brenda’s familiar sing-song tone call out. “Can’t stop now, I’ve got to get the restaurant set up for dinner and Mr. Manager has been on my back all day. I have some news for you, by the way.”
“Go on, so.”
“No, you’ll have to wait. I’ll tell you tonight. My head’ll be on a platter if I don’t get my skates on with these tables. See you at nine.”
“Yep, nine it is.”
Pauline was five minutes early that night. She had been ready for half an hour and couldn’t wait any longer. She was dying to know what it was Brenda was going to tell her. They had just walked into the kitchen when the door bell rang.
“Oh, that’d be my news,” Brenda said and skipped out to the front door.
Pauline could see the door from where she stood at the sink. It was a man, at least ten years younger than Brenda. He wore bright red trousers, a v-neck t-shirt, that exposed an unsightly amount of chest hair, and had sun glasses perched on top of his head.
“He looks like he’s had a bloody Gok Wan makeover,” Pauline thought.
Brenda reached over to the man as he walked in the door and kissed him full on the lips. By the time they reached the kitchen, he had his arm around Brenda’s waist.
“Pauline, this is Adam,” Brenda said proudly.
“Nice…er…nice to meet you Adam,” she said, barely looking at him.
“I’m…I’m sorry Brenda, I have to go,” Pauline said, moving towards the door.
“Pauline?” Brenda called after her. “Hang on, will you?”
She caught up with her friend just as she reached the front door.
“Hey, what’s going on? It’s not Adam, is it?”
“No, no…of course not. It’s just that … I told Grainne I’d ring her… some crisis with the boyfriend. You know how it is.”
She quickly turned away and walked out, ignoring the puzzled look on Brenda’s face.
“That you, love?” Bill called from the living room as she shut the front door behind her. “You’re home early.”
He was sitting in his usual armchair flicking over and back between the end of the match and the nine o’clock news. He didn’t bother turning his head when she walked into the room.
“Yeah,” she answered. “I didn’t feel like staying long tonight. Brenda has company.”
“Ah well, Mary McAleese and the husband are gonna be on The Late Late.”
She sat on the sofa behind him, her eyes filling up with tears, though she didn’t know why. She used to love watching The Late Late Show with Bill on Friday nights.