‘Hey Mrs Palmer,’ said the girl behind the counter.
‘Hi,’ said Molly, staring at the small silver bar through the girl’s eyebrow. She didn’t particularly care for such piercings but then she was hardly offended by them in the way that her ex-husband Ed was. You would have thought their daughter Bridget had become a prostitute the way he reacted to her nose ring. He seemed to think it signified sexual availability.
‘Mrs Palmer?’ the girl repeated.
‘Oh, sorry,’ said Molly, realising she had been drifting again and handing over the prescription. Strange how the girl seemed to know her name, she thought, glancing down to see if the ID badge was still there, even though she knew quite well she had removed it in the car. ‘It’s Mel, Mrs Palmer.’
Molly looked at the girl blankly.
The room snapped into focus. She felt like she had been rudely doused in cold water. Somehow Mel, her son’s fiancé, was staring back at her from the other side of the counter.
‘Oh God! Oh, I’m so sorry Mel. I was miles away. How are you?’ And here she hoped to make up some lost ground: ‘You haven’t been to visit in such a long time!’
Mel coloured slightly. ‘I’m sorry Mrs Palmer. I keep saying to Vincent, when are you going to take me to visit your mum?’ She glanced down at the prescription.
Why does she insist on calling me Mrs Palmer? Molly wondered. Was it done on purpose, to remind her of Mr Palmer? She watched Mel looking at the prescription for a moment before she realised what she’d done. And by then it was too late. Mel looked up slowly. The prescription was for emergency contraception.
They exchanged a moment of uncomfortable eye contact before Mel said, ‘Right then’ and went over to hand in the form to the pharmacist.
Molly leant heavily on the counter. The valium she had taken to get her through the lecture she had given that morning on ‘The Influence of The Romantic Poets on Modern Irish Poetry’ didn’t seem to have waned as it should, nor did it mix well with the car-alarm-loud-panic that was suddenly squalling in her brain. Since when had Mel worked here anyway? She tried to think of a way of preventing her from telling Vincent.
But she had no hold over her – if anything it was the other way around. It was Mel whose advice Vincent took notice of.
And she had to admit that it didn’t look good. She could just imagine how Mel might put it: Your mother came in to the shop today, honey… she looked… strange. Seriously she didn’t even recognise me! And, well, I don’t know how to tell you this…. Well now, she’d come in for the pill.
Vincent and Mel had taken his father’s side over the divorce. Divorce was a sin against God: that was the bald, black-and white way in which they chose to look at the situation. During the argument that had taken place the morning after Ed had finally left, Vincent had called her an ‘hysterical bitch!’
‘You’re destroying our lives!’ he had said.
She had gone to him then and tried to hold him like she had done when he was a little boy. But he wouldn’t let her. This time it was she who was the cause of his suffering. It was hard to believe that it was even possible that she could hurt him, let alone that she had.
Mel placed the sealed paper bag down on the counter, unable to look Molly in the eye. She mumbled, ‘Vincent has a right to know if you’re seeing someone,’ in such a way that Molly couldn’t even be sure if she had said it.
Molly threw the bag onto the passenger seat and slammed the car door shut. ‘Bitch!’ she spat under her breath.
Vincent and Mel had started dating when they were fifteen and so it shouldn’t have been particularly surprising when, four years later, they had announced their engagement. But Molly was surprised. She had hoped that Vincent would start to live a little once he went to university and that he might manage to shake off some of the Catholic seriousness instilled into him by his father. But if anything the freedom of campus life appeared to have only hardened his religous beliefs because he had returned more zealous than ever. And it was now, at the end of his first year, that he had asked Mel to marry him.
They hadn’t consummated their relationship, they were ‘waiting’, a phrase that took Molly back to her own youth. Indeed she was worried that Vincent was making the same mistake that she had made. It had seemed only natural to her at the time, coming as she did from an Irish Catholic household, to marry the first man she had wanted seriously enough to sleep with.
Sleep with: such a quaint phrase when you came to think about it. When sleeping, after all, is the last thing on the agenda. But a pleasing phrase too, summoning the idea of a gentle, sated sleep after lovemaking.
‘Sleep with me,’ was what Toby had said last night, when the candle between them going out had caught their attention and brought their wine-blurred debate about the merits of Patrick Kavanagh to a halt. She had smiled noncommittally and let him lead her over to the sofa, maybe drunk but not drunk enough to rush it if it was going to happen, this thing she had spent what seemed like a lifetime’s worth of sleepless nights imagining. Not that she had particularly imagined it happening with Toby – but she liked him. She would like anyone, she thought. It would be enough simply to be touched. And she felt that then, as his tongue entered her mouth and his hand moved over her breasts: the answer of her skin. Its shock and pleasure and relief.
And the excitement of what he would do next. Toby’s hands weren’t like Ed’s. They were softer and smaller but less hesitant and altogether more knowledgeable regarding the workings of a woman’s body. He had smoothed her thighs as he moved up under her dress, sliding off her knickers, and she had been about to say no, no, not yet but instead of what she was expecting he had lowered his head in between her legs and kissed her. Gentle flickerings of the tongue over the opening in her body. She had felt overwhelmingly conscious of her pubic hair – its profusion – and of the possibility of unpleasant odours. Toby had never done anything like that; the very idea of it would have revolted him.
Once, not long after they were married, she had knelt beside him after a dinner of champagne and oysters – a meal that had been, quite clearly, she thought, intended to act as an aphrodisiac – and unzipped his trousers with a playful smile.
‘If you give a good blow job, no man will even look at another woman,’ her friend Brenda had told her.
‘What are you doing?’ Ed had said, his voice sounding strange. Alarmed even. He had looked at her oddly, too, almost like he wasn’t sure who she was. And she had hit upon it then. The reason for that note of tension in his voice. It wasn’t, as she had first thought, from a fear of physical intimacy – at least not only from that. It was that he was afraid he had married a slut.
She felt like a slut now, with that waiting pill by her side. She slowed for a red light and watched the shoppers, surprised by the summer rain, run across. What could she possibly say to Vincent? There would be another scarring argument.
When she left Toby’s it had still been dark. She needed to shower and dress and then catch a train to London for the poetry conference. He had got up with her, walking with his arm around her to the door and insisting several times that she kissed him ‘just once more’ before he let her open it. It might have been the single most romantic moment of her life.
Vincent had barely started his shift at the pub when Mel came in straight out of work. He was in the beer garden out the back collecting glasses and he stopped for a moment to watch her though the window. She walked up to the bar and looked around hesitantly, wondering where he was. She wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the world, he would admit that, and while he was in the habit of telling her that she was the girl of his dreams he was sometimes aware of the fact that she was very different from the type of woman he had imagined marrying when he was younger. You had to be realistic, though. Girls like that didn’t look at him twice. Besides, there was the matter of his Catholicism. Girls with raven hair and porcelain skin just didn’t go to church.
But Mel had a nice, snug little body. ‘Great tits,’ one of the lads that he shared his corridor with at university had said upon seeing her photograph and Vincent, although he disliked that demeaning kind of language, had had to admit that he had felt a stupid sort of pride. But then he had gone on to tell this same guy about his and Mel’s religious views about pre-marital sex only to be met with outright mockery. The news seemed to have travelled all around campus by the time he went down to the refectory for tea. ‘But we’ve done everything else!’ he said, one time in the uni bar when he’d had too much to drink, immediately recognising how childish that sounded. It wasn’t true anyway.
He went back into the bar. ‘Hey, honey,’ he said, the glasses clinking in his hands as he leant in to kiss her. ‘How was work?’
By way of reply she pressed her face into his chest and squeezed him tightly, making an Ohhhhh! sound.
‘Hey let me put these down first!’ he laughed, breaking out of her embrace to put the glasses down on the bar. ‘What’s up, sweetie?’
Molly felt a little sick. The doctor had said she might but that she should avoid vomiting if she possibly could. She was thinking about the telephone and who would be the first cause of its ringing. Her son or her lover? Under her breath, she drew out each syllable: Lo. Ver. A line by Kavanagh came to her out of this and before she knew what she was doing she had said it out loud:
‘‘Lovers alone lovers protect.’’
‘Eh? Mum?’ Bridget looked at her curiously. At the same time she finally managed to twist the lid off the jar of marinated anchovies, making a deep, plopping sound. She tilted her head a little backwards to drop a fish into her mouth.
Molly shuddered at the sight and smell of this, feeling her stomach move the way a boat does to an enormous, unexpected wave. She ran out of the room, getting her hand over her mouth just in time to contain the vomit.
When she raised her head from the toilet bowl, she saw that Bridget was standing by the door wearing that look that children, no matter how old, sometimes have when parents behave like flawed human beings rather than faultless guardians. A look expressing deep, almost existential consternation.
‘Mum, what’s going on?’
‘Oh angel I’ve just not been feeling so good all day,’ Molly said breathlessly. She crawled over the cold tiles to the sink and used it for purchase to haul herself to her feet. She splashed her face with water and then rinsed her mouth out. She looked very pale, she thought, old and worn out. What a long day it had been. She hoped the tablet would still work.
‘Is something wrong?’ Bridget asked, a high note creeping into her usually relaxed tone. She came into the room and gently moved her hand over the small of Molly’s back.
They were close, mother and daughter. Molly had told her things she had never told Vincent or Ed, or anyone, for that matter. And Bridget, too, confided in her mother; not as completely as she would have her believe; but much more, they both felt, than was usual between a teenager and their parent. Molly looked at her daughter standing behind her in the mirror and thought how beautiful she was becoming, and how like a Mernagh – Molly’s maiden name – too. Soon she would be going to university as well. Molly wasn’t sure how she would cope without her.
‘How was the party?’ she said to change the subject. ‘You look a bit peaky yourself. Hangover?’
Bridget had been out all the night before at a party in advance of tomorrow’s A-Level results. Molly wasn’t worried about the results, although Ed for some reason appeared to be. Bridget was bright. She wanted to do Creative Writing. Unlike her mother, she wanted to write poetry for a living, rather than about it. Molly was pleased.
‘Colossal,’ she said, putting her hands on top of her head and groaning. ‘How about you? You look, if you don’t mind my saying, like you might be suffering one or two after-effects yourself? Did you go to that post conference dinner after all?’
‘There was a lot of wine,’ said Molly ambiguously. ‘Can we go and sit down?’
‘Yeah, come on, we can veg out together. A proper girl’s night in. How about some tea?’
‘That sounds nice, love.’ She wondered if she should tell her. It was more a matter of when, really. Before Vincent did.
Vincent. Oh God. She should have had the courage to go and see him before Mel had the chance. She might, at least, have been able to put it to him in a more flattering light.
The phone rang. Bridget picked it up immediately.
‘Are you sure that’s what it was?’ Vincent asked sharply. Mel might have got it wrong – maybe it was for some other female thing. The menopause. She didn’t look like she’d got it wrong, though. His stomach turned. For some reason when she said it the first thing that he had thought of was semen, running down the inside of his mother’s legs.
Mel was holding his hands in between her own. He could feel her looking at him even though he was staring at the marbling effect on the top of the bar. She had made out like she didn’t want to tell him but he had thought that she had looked pleased. She didn’t get on well with his mother.
He looked at her: ‘Well?’
She was flustered by the sharpness in his tone and there was a wounded note to her voice when she said: ‘Yes, honey, I’m sure. I knew what it was anyway but I asked the pharmascist after your mother left just to be sure.’
‘Oh yes you would do that wouldn’t you?’ he snapped, finding this little detail somehow more enraging than anything else. ‘Just to be sure. You’re fucking well enjoying this, aren’t you Mel?’
‘What do you mean?’ she backed away from him, releasing his hands. ‘I had to tell you, didn’t I?’
‘Why exactly! What fucking business is it of yours?’
‘We’re getting married!’ Mel shouted tearfully. ‘You never swore at me before you went to university!’
Vincent buried his head in his arms. The anger was ebbing away from him already, he just felt sad now.
‘Is anyone serving here?’ someone asked and when he looked up Mel was nowhere to be seen.
‘Sometimes it seems to me as though the way we structure time makes us feel older than we actually are. I mean I’m forty-one, right? But what does that actually mean? It’s just a way of letting people know that in all probability I’m halfway – at least halfway -’ Molly laughed, ‘to being fucking dead.’
‘Yes, I remember when I turned thirty just thinking I was incredibly old!’ said Toby, tightening his grip around Molly’s waist. ‘Even though you say fuck it and don’t think about it, it’s always there subconsciously. The thought that you have less and less time. And that you’re wasting what time you have.’
They were stood on top of the small hill that lay a few miles out of town. ‘Just come out for an hour, I want to watch the sunset with you,’ he had said on the phone.
Molly took a swig from the cold Prosecco he had brought along. ‘To just try and follow the seasons,’ she said wistfully. To not think any further forward than that. That’s the real task, isn’t it? I mean that’s how we should live.’ She leant back and kissed his cheek, pleased by the slight stubble it had grown over the course of the day. ‘I’m already a bit tipsy.’
He moved his hands up from her waist to cup her breasts and she felt his penis react to the sensation. Felt it stiffen against her arse. He made her feel like laughing and saying just whatever came into her head.
Suddenly laughing himself, Toby said: ‘I once wrote a song called ‘Every Season Makes Me Cry’ after my first girlfriend broke up with me. It was about how each season reminded me of her in a different way. It was meant to be like a Nico song, you know? Ha ha! You can’t imagine how fucking awful it was! But the sentiment was true I suppose. Because it really had felt like I was experiencing each season for the first time during that year we were together. Like I was experiencing everything for the first time. I suppose it’s that way for everyone. First love.’
‘I suppose so,’ said Molly, looking down and seeing light after light come on in the smattering of houses at the foot of the hill. To her tired eyes, they seemed to be dancing. ‘I don’t really remember it like that.’ She smiled up at him and said recklessly:
‘I feel more that way now.’
She did. The last twenty-four hours had been like no other she had experienced. She felt altered by them. Wild. The perpetual murmur of guilt she couldn’t ever remember not hearing had suddenly gone silent.
Mel was waiting up for Vincent when he got in. He had managed to pick up some slightly bedraggled looking roses from the 24-hour garage. All the way back to Mel’s parent’s house he had interspersed the rosary with invocations to God for help and guidance.
And God had answered. Or so it seemed to Vincent anyway, because a resolution that was surprising to him had formed in his mind. He wouldn’t say anything to his mother about what had occurred in the pharmacy.
‘Mel, I’m sorry,’ he said, proffering the flowers. ‘It was just…’ he trailed off. ‘I was just upset.’
‘They’re lovely,’ she said holding them up to her nose and breathing in the slight odour of petrol they gave off. She placed them down carefully on the sofa behind where she was standing and put her arms around his waist. ‘I’m sorry too, angel. I shouldn’t have told you.’
‘No, no it’s okay. What were you meant to do?’
‘I guess she wasn’t to know I’d got a job there.’
He stroked her hair with the back of his hand and kissed her just above the tiny bar through her eyebrow. When she had disappeared like that he had thought that it might be over between them and he had been surprised by how ambivalent he had felt about the idea. What was happening to him? How had he spoken to her like that? She was right he had changed. ‘I’ll have to see her tomorrow. It’s Bridget’s result’s day.’
‘What will you say?’
‘I don’t know. Nothing, I suppose. I’m so sick of fighting with her. We used to be so close.’
She kissed him gently on the lips. ‘Come on you, you look exhausted. Let’s get into bed.’
As usual Mel went into the bathroom to put her nightclothes on. He told himself she was shy that was all. He supposed he was too and that that was part of the trouble. He put on his stripy pyjamas and got under the duvet.
Mel came in wearing shorts and her ‘counting sheep’ t-shirt. She smiled at him. She looked so girlish when she smiled sometimes. He always felt aroused seeing the novelty of the outline of her bra-less breasts when they went to bed and once she got in besides him he slid his hand under her t-shirt. He pressed the underside of his thumb against her right nipple and felt it sink into the soft flesh.
She said: ‘You’re tired of waiting now, aren’t you?’
Feeling rebuked he slumped back on the bed and put his arms behind his head. He said: ‘Aren’t you?’
‘I don’t know. I suppose I think it’ll be worth waiting for.’ She paused. She was breathing heavily. ‘I suppose I’m a little bit scared too.’
He moved over and rested his head on her shoulder. ‘Of what it’ll feel like?’
‘A little bit. But it’s more that I’m afraid you’ll stop loving me.’
She had been crying and as he kissed the warm, salt-tasting rivulets away, she took his hand and moved it back underneath her T-shirt, pressing it hard against her right breast. Then slowly, as they kissed, she helped him move on top of her, opening her legs pliantly beneath him.
She did her best to ease him inside her but he was in too much of a fervour and he could tell that he had hurt her by the sharp intake of breath she made and by the sudden look of vertigo in her eyes. He ejaculated almost instantly. All the years of repressed desire gushing out of him like hot water bursting from a smashed open pipe.
Vincent felt elated and ashamed all at the same time. And she was right. He didn’t love her anymore.
Photograph by Ian Elliott
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis