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The date was May 1st 2006; it was the morning of Harri's thirtieth birthday and the day she was set to marry.
She'd woken up only once the night before, humming the tune to "Get Me to the Church on Time." I'm getting married in a few hours. Holy crap, I think I'm going to cry. La la, la la la. I wish I wasn't losing my mind. She wasn't awake for long, just time enough for a mini freak-out, to indulge in a tear or two, blow her nose and hit her head on the Edwardian mahogany headboard with its checkered stringing. Bastard the bed not the fiancé, she loved her fiancé. Harri was just nervous. When she got nervous she got confused, or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, nervousness and confusion usually ended up in minor injury. Don't be all "my left foot" about it, Harri. It will all go beautifully. Everything will be fine. You will not mess this day up. Go back to sleep. She obeyed herself and despite a slight sore head managed to return to the Land of Nod within minutes with no real harm done.
"Big day," her dad greeted her with a wink on the landing.
"Big day, Dad," she agreed sheepishly, rubbing a particularly stubborn piece of crap from the darkest and deepest corner of her right eye.
"Don't pull your eye out, love," he warned.
"I'll try not to," she said, kissing him on his hairy cheek as he passed with his paper heading toward his en-suite bathroom where he would spend what he often described as a well-earned hour on the loo.
Soon after, when she'd emerged from a pounding shower, her mother was waiting in her bedroom with a full Irish breakfast including toast, tea, coffee and a range of croissants and cheese.
"Morning, my darling," she said with a smiling sigh while placing the breakfast tray on the table by the window that looked down on a pretty stone patio and across to an ancient oak tree.
"Morning, Mum." She grinned while holding a cloth up against the eye she'd all but pulled out despite the earlier promise made. She took the cloth away from her face.
"Holy hell, darling, how'd you manage that?"
"Ah," her mother said with a smile, "so you slept." She was nodding her head approvingly. "Good girl. Don't worry, darling. Mona will sort it out. Mona could conceal a baboon's arse stuck out of a white Fiat Uno."
Her mum was laughing. Harri's mum, Gloria, didn't curse or engage in conversation deemed to be lewd a lot but when she did she made sure her verbal misdemeanor was for comic effect. Harri joined in, always pleased when her mother allowed herself to participate in what she deemed to be misbehavior. She made her way over to and sat on the chair that accompanied the table that looked down on the pretty stone patio and across to the ancient oak tree. The sun shone a bright yellow against a light blue cloudless sky. "It's a nice day," she commented, hugging herself in the comfortable toweling dressing gown her mother had given her six years before when she'd first left home to move twenty minutes down the road to the University College Dublin college campus. "Always buy quality, darling," Gloria had said. "Anything else is simply false economy."
Gloria was all about quality. She had expensive taste and found it difficult to tolerate anything but the finer things in life. She had grown up as the only child to a wealthy landowner. There was a time when her parents owned a quarter of South Dublin. Harri's granddad died in his late forties, leaving the house to her nana and mum. Nana suffered from epilepsy and because of this Gloria would never leave her. She met Harri's dad when the house was broken into in the early seventies and he came to investigate the crime. They fell in love quickly and were married within a year. Harri's dad, Duncan, originated from North Dublin and initially he was uncomfortable with his newfound wealthy lifestyle. Gloria said he was like a duck in a desert, but his work kept him satisfied and rooted in the familiar gritty reality that his newfound home life shielded him from and so he retained a balance. Also he was fond of Nana. She was a lady but she was also tough as old boots and a whiz at chess, and together they played games that would last up to a month.
Duncan had joined the guards straight out of school. He was third generation and moved up the ranks quickly, making detective in his early twenties. He had worked on some of the most tragic cases Ireland had seen. Harri would often wonder how he managed to leave all that terror at the door. Her mum said he wiped his feet on the mat and there he'd leave his day.
Harri only ever witnessed her dad cry once. She could have been nine, maybe ten. He was sitting at his desk in his attic office. Harri was holding a tray with his lunch and so she didn't knock. He was looking at a photograph with his hand held up to his face and tears flowing. He shoved the photo into the file that had been opened out on his desk, closing it quickly, hugging it to his chest, and then he spun toward the window, wiping his eyes obviously in the hope that she hadn't seen. In Harri's house they never really made a habit of talking about anything anyone felt uncomfortable about. Duncan's job ensured that he was obligated to be silent on many matters and so it became his habit. Gloria was far too ladylike and, unlike Nana, too fragile for any kind of confrontation, and Nana, when she was still in the land of the living, didn't believe in discussing anything that verged on boring. Feelings, she had once decreed, were boring. George and Harri grew up in a house that was all about being lovely. Crying had no place in this home and so Harri pretended she hadn't witnessed her father weep on that day, but years later if she closed her eyes she could still see those fat tears splash on white paper.
"It's a fabulous morning." Gloria smiled and kissed the top of her daughter's head.
"I'm never going to be able to eat this," Harri said, surveying the ridiculous amount of food placed before her.
"I know." Gloria nodded before moving toward the end of the bed and bending over to pull out a blue box from under it. "For you," she said, smiling. "Happy birthday, darling!"
"Thanks, Mum." Harri grinned. She was thirty but still got giddy around presents. She opened the box to reveal a beautiful art deco pendant. Gloria loved art deco and Harri did too. Duncan used to say they were two peas in a pod. She held it up against the window. It was beautiful, gleaming in daylight with stones that glistened. "I love it!" she said with a kiss.
George was in and lying on the bed before Harri's lips had left her mother's head. "So, Mum, where's my present?"
"Under your bed."
"Aah!" he said with a disappointed sigh.
"That's two floors down."
"Don't be so lazy, darling, it's a staircase, not blooming Everest."
"So what is it?"
"I'm not telling you," Gloria said, smiling.
"And how come I didn't get breakfast in bed?" he queried while examining a strand of his hair.
"Because you're not getting married. So happy birthday, Nuisance. Now please be an adult." She often called George "Nuisance" and was smiling as she said it because if the truth be told she liked it when he acted like a child. It made her feel needed. "My twins." She smiled. "Both so grown up but deep down and where it counts you will always be my babies." The end of her little speech had a touch of mad old dear menace about it but the sweet sentiment was there.
George jumped up and kissed Harri on the head. "Happy birthday, Harri!"
She hugged him tight. "Happy birthday, George!"
Harri idolized her twin brother. He was everything she wasn't. George could stand center stage and hold any room while Harri could only ever be found in its corner. He was adventurous, having traveled around the world, spending summers in the snow and winters in the sun. He surfed, skied and dived and did so, well. He loved to paraglide and was considering helicopter lessons. Harri was not much of an explorer. She hadn't managed to move farther than twenty minutes down the road from her parents. Hot sun brought her out in heat rash and the one time she skied she broke her wrist. He was athletic, she was bookish. He was loud, she was quiet. He was a playboy, she was a worker. He was gay, she was straight. They didn't even really look alike aside from both having thick wavy brunette hair. He was tall, she was average. He was broad, she was petite. He had a square-shaped face while hers was oval. They were so different in so many ways and yet they didn't need to use words the way others did. They understood each other. They knew one another. George would have jumped any bridge for his sister. The Ryan twins had always been extremely close.
"Time to let go, little sister," George said, pulling away from her grip.
"I'm older." She smiled.
"You're smaller!" He grinned.
And really, between the sunny morning, the new shiny jewelry, the big breakfast, Gloria's tasteful décor, her warmth and kindness, Harri's bridal jitters and George's playful neediness, that moment if captured would have been considered Rockwellesque, in that it depicted a picture-perfect family life. The only thing spoiling it in Harri's mind was the impending nuptials.
Stay calm, Harri. Don't mess this up.
But unbeknownst to her there was a far greater menace underlying this ideal family on this ideal day.
The dress was slightly too tight and Mona's perfectly coiffed up-style was bringing on a headache, but even Harri was forced to admit that she had done a fantastic job despite a broken finger.
"I need more."
"I had a child who turned into a teenager who turned into an asshole who thinks nothing of leaving a skateboard at the top of a staircase."
"You're lucky you didn't break your neck."
"He's lucky I didn't break his neck! Seriously, Harri, think before you copulate."
Harri enjoyed Mona. She was named well for she loved to moan but did so with likable verve. George called her Moaning and she never seemed to mind.
"Wow, Moaning, you make breeding sound so romantic!" he chimed in from the doorway.
"Tell me you're going to let me do something with that hair?" Mona asked him, well versed in ignoring his attempted witticisms.
"What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing if you're emulating a fop."
"Well, I was going for Hugh Grant circa Four Weddings." He stood behind her, examining himself in the mirror.
"Well then, dear, the look has been achieved beautifully."
"Moaning, you're such a bitch but I love it."
He sighed and sat in the corner of the sitting room, the room where Harri was standing in her slightly too tight wedding dress, and with pretty but headache-inducing hair.
Duncan coughed outside, knocked and crept into the room with a camera. "Oh now. What?" Duncan often said "What" out of context, as though someone unseen had whispered a remark or query into his ear. He mostly did it when he was happy. "Fantastic. Fantastic!" He also repeated himself a lot and in a tone that suggested childish delight. "Jaysus, you're smashing. Isn't she smashing?" He was looking around at George and Mona, who both smiled and nodded to assure him. It would seem that the dress clearly made up for in wow-factor what it sorely lacked in comfort, its sheer splendor managing to bring a tear to Duncan's usually stubbornly dry eyes. To avoid uncomfortable emotion George made a joke suggesting that his father's tears had more to do with cost than visual appeal. Awkward moment averted, Duncan grinned, and despite his jibe Harri's twin brother's good-natured shove suggested her appearance had met with his high if not foppish standards.
Melissa rang. Mona handed Harri the phone with a warning. "Two minutes."
"Still with us?"
"Where are you?" she asked, confused by the sound of passing traffic.
"I'm in the church car park changing a nappy."
"You're at the church already?"
She could hear the panic in Harri's voice. "Stop. Breathe. I'm just checking the flowers. You still have an hour."
"Okay." She exhaled as much as the dress would allow.
"Jacob, get in the car. Jacob, get in the car. Jacob..."
"Sorry. Get in the bloody car!"
Shuffling ensued and she could hear Jacob moan something about wanting a sandwich from the car boot.
"You keep sandwiches in the boot?"
"Sandwiches, yogurts, nappies, towels, CheeStrings, formula, a six-pack of Capri Sun, Play-Doh, knickers. You name it, I have it."
"Get off the phone!" Mona said.
"I have to get off the phone."
"Okay. Everything's going to be fine."
"I know." "Oh, James is here."
Harri's stomach turned. James was at the church. She hung up.
Mona dragged her to the dining table near the big window that overlooked Nana's bench and let in lots of required light. She'd pulled an eye pencil out of her bulging bag of tricks.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"I'm fine," Harri said.
Mona pushed her into the chair. "Look up!" she ordered. Harri looked up. "Are you sure you're okay? Suddenly you seem pale."
Harri gave her the thumbs-up, afraid that if she spoke she'd throw up.
Duncan had gone to pick Gloria up from Shoe World in Sandycove where she'd insisted on going half an hour earlier when the strap of her brand-new sandals snapped.
"Holy hell, I can't believe it!" she'd cried. "These shoes cost five hundred euro!"
"What?" Duncan had roared. "Five hundred euro? Have you lost your mind, woman?"
Gloria hadn't realized he was in earshot and she was in no mood for a price war. "Darling, we both know you weren't meant to hear that so let's just pretend that you didn't."
Duncan grumbled something about five hundred Jaysusing euro but he could see sense in her argument and so he let it go. Sandycove is a small village and they lived a stone's throw away from it so he dropped her off, returning home with just enough time to take photos before the retrieval call came. He had made his way to the car mumbling about the cost of everything and wondering how much these new bloody toe-curlers were going to set them back.
Harri didn't feel like moving or sitting or drinking or even taking the Valium that Mona offered with the advice that it had worked wonders on her neighbor's daughter, Cliona. Apparently Cliona often suffered with her nerves, but according to Mona this was due to her being a self-centered ungrateful brat who didn't give half a stuff about her hardworking mother or indeed her father, who often smelled of chip fat, a man who apparently had built an empire out of chip fat and was a gentleman to go along with it. George laughed, enjoying Mona's chat. Harri feigned engagement but inside felt numb.
"Do you feel sick?" George asked from the corner of the room where he had made himself comfortable in his mother's favorite antique rocking chair.
"A little," she admitted as there was little point in lying to him.
"You'll be okay," Mona said, applying a second coat of ruby red lipstick. "Now smack your lips."
"And breathe!" George instructed before returning to read an article on a new species of Sri Lankan tree frog. "Take a look at those weird staring red eyes. If frogs could kill..."
Harri's fiancé, James, liked frogs, believing them necessary to a well-balanced ecosystem. He had a strange fixation with all amphibians and reptiles; where most saw ick, he saw wonder.
"Did you know that when snakes strike they have a near one hundred percent success rate?" he'd casually mentioned on their first date.
"I did not know that," she'd responded while thinking he was a mental case and deciding against ordering dessert.
He believed that reptiles were most especially marginalized. "I mean, what have lizards ever done to anyone?"
She didn't respond, hoping he'd change the subject. He didn't. Instead he told her about his pet snake, Ronnie, who he had for about three years until it died of organ failure. He had blamed himself for not having read the signs. "He definitely didn't look sick," he said, shaking his head, leaving Harri a moment to ponder what a sick snake would actually look like. "I loved that snake."
He had a cute wrinkle that appeared just over his eye, which she later associated with him suffering an upset. James worked as an architect. His great love was all things building related. James wasn't just a contractor he was an artist in that he was passionate and strove for perfection. He controlled every aspect of the job from the foundations to the roof, and seeing and walking around his finished building was a high akin to that of a rock star walking onto a Wembley stage and playing to a full house. James was a builder from a different age and yet he could only be described as being fierce about the environment, insisting that he only worked on eco-friendly structures.
They had met six years earlier through work. He was building a house and Harri and Susan Shannon, her business partner, were decorating it. On that very day Susan had said she hoped he wasn't stupid because if he had any kind of decent IQ Harri should marry him. Harri had laughed her off, thinking nothing more of it. Susan always did have a keen interest in matchmaking and did so with anyone who would let her. She said it was a replacement for having sex. From the offset she was sure Harri and James had chemistry and was decidedly happy when, within weeks of their meeting, they proved her correct.
Susan had recently turned forty-six and for her birthday her husband had bought her a garden hose. It was an expensive garden hose with lots of handy attachments and powerful enough to clean a stone patio as well as sprinkle the plants, but still she wanted to shove it down his throat.
"James would never buy you a garden hose," Harri said, and she was right, he wouldn't. However, she did mention that he'd bought her a shredder after watching a news report on identity fraud.
Susan shook her head and sighed. "Whatever happened to romance?"
"I think it's a casualty of feminism."
"The question was rhetorical and you think too much."
She was right, Harri did think too much. Overthinking was probably her biggest problem.
Anyway, two days after Susan had made her little remark about James being marriage material, he asked Harri out.
Even though their first date had begun a little strangely, by the end of the evening and while they were sitting outside the Dún Laoghaire apartment that she shared with a blue-eye-shadow-leotard-and-bubble-skirt-wearing contemporary dancer called Tina Tingle, the evening improved considerably.
The car stopped. She immediately put her hand on the door handle to suggest she was getting out without delay.
"Sorry," he said, "I'm a little out of practice."
"It's okay." She blushed, embarrassed by his frankness.
"Where did I lose you?" he asked with a slight grin.
"Your in-depth description of the texture of Ronnie's scales."
He laughed and nodded. "I was nervous. I talk utter shit when I'm nervous."
She smiled. "My brother does that. After my nana's funeral he talked about belly-button fluff for a whole hour."
There was silence for a moment or two and James noticed that Harri's hand was no longer holding the door handle.
"So you're out of practice?" Harri said, scratching the back of her neck and facing the front window, but out of the corner of her eye she could see him rub his forehead and the crinkles around his eyes suggested a smile.
"It's been a while."
"Oh," she said, nodding, "and a while would be what?" She attempted to inject nonchalance into her voice.
He laughed. "You're not shy, are you?"
"Usually I am," she admitted with a blush.
He was laughing. He had a full dirty laugh.
"So?" she probed. I can't believe I'm being so pushy.
"Can I ask?"
"We were together for four years and she got sick."
"Oh my God! I'm so sorry. I was being way too nosey."
"No, it's okay. It took some time but she got better." He laughed a short laugh tinged with bitterness. "She got better and decided she wanted a different kind of life so she broke my heart and moved to Australia, where I believe she married a surfer six months later."
"Right." Harri was bloody sorry she'd started her interrogation. Normally she was disinterested in the lives of strangers. "I feel terrible."
"Why?" His smile had returned.
"Just do," she sighed, shrugging her shoulders.
Harri didn't engage in the lives of those not close because sad stories affected her way too much. She took them on board and lived them when she was alone. Sadness haunted her and it didn't have to be her own.
"What about you?" he asked, lightening the tone and noticing that not only had Harri removed her hand from the door but her knees had turned to face his.
"I was going out with a carpenter called Simon for nearly a year. We split up six months ago. It wasn't anything in particular, we just didn't fit."
"And before Simon?"
"College thing. Ian Grace. He was an engineering student. We were together for just over three years."
"What happened with you two?"
"He took a job in Saudi. I don't really like the sun."
"If I promise not to talk shit would you agree to see me again?"
"Good," he said, nodding to himself. "Harri?"
"Would you mind terribly if I leaned in for a kiss? I don't mind if you say no."
"Only joking!" she laughed, and that was it after that.
They just fit.
They were both hard workers, both liked to read, neither of them was particularly into music or TV, preferring a silent room as a background to conversation. They both liked to talk and to cook and to laugh. James was funny, not in a conventional ha-ha-what-a-comedian sense but he could always make Harri laugh nonetheless.
"Ah, come on! Knock, knock!"
"God almighty, who's there?"
"Gorilla me a cheese sandwich."
You know, when someone tells you such an utterly stupid unfunny joke and all you can do is laugh at the ridiculousness of it? Well, Harri would laugh and he'd clap his hands together, delighting in his hilarity.
"There is something wrong with you."
"Yeah, there is! I'm hungry so gorilla me a cheese sandwich."
"Oh sweet God, don't drag the thing on!"
"You love my jokes."
She really didn't, but she did love him.
She was lost and gazing past Nana's bench and out onto a clean street lined with white blossom trees heralding spring and a time for change. It was while adrift in a place beyond white blossoms that the awful feeling came in the form of a large and sweeping wave. Terror rose from within and threatened to engulf not only her but the entire room. Her head got busy buzzing. Everything felt suddenly wrong. She was drowning in the room, now blurry. Everything inside shouted that something was off. Oh no, not again! An overpowering and insane notion crossed her now-manic mind, telling her she didn't belong. She had been here before. She could feel her hands becoming clammy and within seconds her heart rate increased; another second or two passed before it began pounding deep within her chest. Just breathe, Harri. Just like George said. Clammy hands threatened to shake despite her core temperature increasing at an alarming rate. Just calm down, Harri. Don't be a dick, please. She knew that at any moment she would begin to feel dizzy and then she would completely disconnect. Mum is going to kill me. Just as she attempted to call out, her breath shortened, clammy hands rose to her throat signaling that she was choking.
Mona was the first to notice. "Oh Christ, she's at it again! George, call an ambulance before she goes bloody blue on us!"
Mam was crying again last night. I heard HIM come in. He was shouting at her, calling her, "Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre!" Someday he'll wear her name out. I heard him bang at her door. She must have locked it. "Deirdre, open the door, you miserable bitch!" "I won't!" she said. Can you believe she answered to him calling her a miserable bitch? What's wrong with her? At least she locked her door. I locked mine too. He's a freak. I hate him. He stormed out screaming that he'd be back and made his way down the road cursing loud enough for Nosey Crowley in number 7 to hear. I saw her curtain twitching as he passed her house swearing at nothing and everything. You could see she was delighted, that will keep her talking, the nosey old biddy.
Sometimes I lie awake and I wonder, Why did she have to marry him? Did she really love him or was she just lonely after Dad? I thought we were happy. In fact, I know we were happy that is, until he came along. She rushed into it, at least that's what I heard Nosey Crowley say in the chemist when I was hiding behind shelving and she was talking with Mrs. Stephens about the last time he left our house cursing. Nosey called her stupid and to be fair to Nosey she's not wrong. My mother is a stupid woman. I'd never be stupid enough to fall for a horrible man like him and I'll never marry.
School's a nightmare, can't wait for the holidays. Don't know what I'm going to do, he says I'll have to get a job. Maybe I will but not because of him. In nine days I'll be sixteen. Mam said I could get a bottle of Charlie and a Bay City Rollers tape. I hope it happens. I hope he doesn't drink all the money. I adore the smell of Charlie.
In one year I'll be gone from here. I can't wait. Every day feels like a year and some days feel like ten years. Sheila says she's going to join the bank. Last week she wanted to do hairdressing and a month ago she was thinking of teaching. I don't know what I want to be. I just know that I want to be anywhere but Wicklow.
I saw that doctor again he was fishing off the rocks. He looks my age, maybe a year or two older. I'd put him at nineteen at a push. Sheila says he's at least midtwenties. He doesn't look it. He always looks sad even when he smiles. He's shy too. It must be hard for him in a new town. I'd hate to be a doctor, people are disgusting. I wonder where he's from.
I had a dream last night. I dreamt that I was on a boat that kept returning to shore. Every time the boat inched out to sea it was pulled back. It scared me. I'm obsessing. Sheila says I obsess. She thinks I should relax and enjoy life. Easy for her to say she doesn't live with a drunk in fact her father is getting rich serving all the drunks in town. She's never had to hide in her room. She gets to sit with her dad watching Morecambe & Wise on a color TV so it's easy for her to relax and enjoy life. I miss Sheila. I wish she wasn't with that Dave. So what's so great about Dave? He has a rubbish Kevin Keegan perm. Sheila thinks it's cool and it's really, really not. He stinks of his dad's Brut and he's always pawing her. Yesterday he kept putting her down trying to be funny, which he wasn't. I wanted to punch him hard. Mam says that sometimes I get a look and it frightens her.
It's after ten and I'm tired. HE's still in the pub. If I go to sleep now maybe I won't hear him. First I'll lock the door. Sheila's dad says that you should never lock a bedroom door in case of fire. It's not fire I'm scared of. I'd rather burn.
I just decided tomorrow I'm going to look for a summer job, anything to get me out of this house. It makes me laugh. He says I have to get a job, while he sits in a pub or leans on the bank wall with his mate all day every day. Mam always makes excuses; she says dockers can only work when the coasters come in but Anita Shea's dad is a docker and he paints and wallpapers houses and Tim Healy's dad takes shifts behind the bar in The Pole instead of sitting in front of it drinking all the money he's earned for two days' work in two hours. Anyway, I don't care about that. He can do what he wants. I'm gone from here. One year can feel like forever or a day. My dad used to say that. I think I'll sit with him for a while tomorrow. Maybe I'll clean his headstone. Birds seem to think it's a toilet and it's funny because Rita Heneghan is right beside him and her headstone is always clean as a whistle and I've never seen anyone visit her. Once a bird actually did a shit on his one while I was sitting there! I think my dad would think that was funny. He used to laugh a lot. I miss his laugh. I miss him. I wish he was here but he's not so what's the point in wishing? He's gone. Feck him for that.
Oh and just so I never forget, today in the woods I heard spring. I actually heard it, in the trees and the breeze and the dogs barking along the trails and the sky was so, so blue and the grass was the brightest green. I leaned on brown bark and inhaled fresh air. When all is said and done I'll miss those woods.
Copyright © 2008 by Anna McPartlin