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"You're coming home for Christmas. Fantastic! We'll have to get together. You'll have to come over for a meal." Kathy Reynolds injected a note of false gaiety into her voice as she spoke to Mari Clancy, an old schoolfriend who was ringing from Dubai. "Is Brett coming with you?"
"Er...no, not this year. Can't get time off. Things are a bit crazy with the Iraqi situation." Mari sounded glum.
"Oh...poor Brett," Kathy sympathized, privately relieved that the wealthy consultant wouldn't be around to patronize herself and Bill with his boastful tales of life in the Emirates.
"So look, how about the day after Stephen's Day? You know the way the diary fills up, and Mam will have me doing the rounds like nobody's business," Mari said briskly.
"I'll be looking forward to it," Kathy lied, thinking that a visit from Mari was the last thing she needed.
They talked for another while, swapping gossip and news and Kathy was glad it was Mari who had called. It must be costing a fortune but Mari was loaded and money wasn't an issue for her, unlike herself.
Later, in the kitchen, she found herself humming "My heart is low, my heart is so low, as only a woman's heart can be..." To her way of thinking it was one of the greatest songs ever written for and about women. The woman who had written that song knew exactly what Kathy was feeling at that moment. Low, disheartened, dispirited, depressed and extremely agitated.
She wiped along the top of her worktops vigorously. When Kathy was agitated she cleaned her worktops over and over again, lifting the bread bin and matching set of coffee, tea and sugar containers, annihilating any unfortunate crumb lurking in the vicinity. Today the worktops were getting a rigorous going-over, as were the fridge-freezer doors and the top of the cooker.
It was funny, how she headed for the kitchen when she was under pressure. Her sister always attacked the bathroom in her moments of stress. Kathy's best friend, Laura, would invariably cut the grass.
She sighed deeply, feeling totally stressed out. Her husband Bill had been out of a job for the last fourteen months and there was no sign of anything on the horizon. Christmas was just ten days away and her three children were up to ninety with excitement at the thoughts of Santa's impending arrival.
The Christmas shopping had to be done. She and Bill had just had a row about it. Now, to crown it all, she'd had the call from Mari to say she would be back in town for Christmas. More expense. Kathy gave a sigh that came from the depths of her being. Normally she loved having visitors and it would have been a pleasure to see her old schoolfriend, but these days, she didn't want to see anyone. She just wanted to shrivel up inside her shell and stay there.
In the last few months all her hope that Bill would have no problems in finding another job had become harder and harder to sustain. As money got tighter their savings dwindled and their standard of living noticeably diminished. Kathy increasingly felt like burying her head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich.
She didn't want Mari Clancy coming to her house when she had no oil for the central heating. Kathy didn't want her to know that she'd sold her Fiesta and Bill's Volvo was in the garage because they hadn't got the money to tax and insure it. Mari would have to put up with cheap wine and a simple meal. Kathy just didn't have the money for steaks and champagne. It was months since she'd been able to afford luxuries like that.
Kathy rubbed viciously at a particularly stubborn piece of grit that was embedded between the curved edge of her drainer and the muted grey worktop. To think she couldn't even afford to go to an off-licence any more. Who would have ever thought it? Who would have ever thought that their family's affluent, comfortable lifestyle would have been so severely shaken, and disrupted that gut-wrenching evening when Bill had come home from work, grey-faced and shaken, to tell her that the multinational computer company that he worked for was closing its Irish operation in favour of their American outfit, with a loss of five hundred jobs.
"I'm finished, Kathy, I'll never get another job at my age." Bill sat with his head buried in his hands while Kathy tried to take in what her husband had just told her.
"Don't be daft, Bill!" she said firmly. "You're only forty-three. That's young and people are always going to need human resource managers. Experienced human resource managers."
"Kathy, you don't know what it's like out there, I'm telling you, it's cut-throat. They can get fellas half my age with better degrees who'll work for half my salary because they're so desperate to get a job. The Celtic Tiger's well and truly vanished." Bill had tears in his eyes and Kathy, horrified at the state her usually cheerful and easy-going husband was in, flung her arms around him and hugged him tightly.
"Stop worrying, Bill, we'll manage fine, you'll get a job, I know you will. You're the best there is, you'll be snapped up in no time," she comforted, absolutely believing every word she spoke. Bill was bloody good at his job. He'd get another job...and soon.
Week after week, month after month she'd said the same thing over and over, trying to keep her spirits up as much as his. Unemployment didn't happen to people like her and Bill with their pretty, four-bedroom, semi-detached dormer bungalow in a lovely wooded cul-de-sac in Sandymount.
They had always been able to afford a fortnight abroad every year, trips to London where Kathy's sister lived, music and swimming lessons for the kids. It had all been available and Kathy had never envisaged that it would ever be otherwise.
When she'd thought about unemployment she had a mental image of people whose lifestyles were a million miles from her own. Kathy wasn't a snob or anything like it, she was lucky and she knew it. She'd never thought that unemployment could happen to her family. Bill was a trained professional, for God's sake, with years of work experience. Being a human resource manager for a staff of five hundred employees was an important job. People like him didn't end up on a dole queue. Or so she'd thought.
"Get real, Kathy!" her younger sister, Ella, remonstrated one day several months after Bill had been made redundant, when she had been moaning about their situation. Ella was a community welfare officer and knew a lot about unemployment. "Don't kid yourself that it's all people from so-called deprived areas that are on the dole, it isn't. There's a hell of a lot of people like Bill, in middle management, who are out there suffering behind their lace curtains and going to the St. Vincent de Paul for help with their mortgage repayments. People who enjoyed a lifestyle just like yours."
"St. Vincent de Paul, but that's for poor people!" Kathy exclaimed in horror.
"These people are heading for poor," Ella said gently. "They're living in lovely houses, with no heating and no phones and not enough money to pay the mortgage, in danger of their homes being repossessed. They need help too." Seeing her sister's stricken face she said softly, "Look, I'm not suggesting you're ever going to need to go to the St. Vincent de Paul, but what I'm saying is, start economizing. Use some of Bill's redundancy money to whack a bit off your mortgage. Get rid of one of the cars. I'm not saying that Bill won't ever get a job again, hopefully he will, but just don't think that he's going to waltz into a new position just like that. It doesn't happen that way any more, unfortunately. There's a recession starting out there and it's not going away."
Kathy came away from her chat with her sister more scared than she had ever been in her life. For the first time since it happened, she had lifted her head out of the sand and taken a long, hard look at their situation. Ella's words might have been harsh but they had stiffened Kathy's resolve. It was time to sit down and take stock and face the hard facts. Bill was unemployed and likely to stay that way. The future had to be faced.
That night when the children were in bed, she sat down with her husband and calmly announced that it was time for them to discuss their financial situation so that they could make long-term plans. Bill slumped down at the kitchen table and lit a cigarette. She could see his fingers shaking. "I don't know how we're going to manage," he muttered.
I'd like to kill the bastards that did this to him, Kathy thought viciously as she saw her husband's hopes and dreams fade to ashes. He flicked on his calculator and they began to work on the figures he had in front of him.
Bill said they had to reduce their mortgage by two-thirds, that was vital and at least they'd have the comfort of knowing that their home was safe enough. They'd use his lump sum for that. They'd sell her Fiesta and with the money they'd make from that they'd continue the insurance policies, the most important of which was the policy they had taken out for their children's education. They'd pay the VHI for another year. If Bill didn't get a job after that there'd be no more private health insurance.
They went to bed subdued.
Kathy began to take her calculator to the supermarket. Before, she had never considered the cost of food that much. Whatever she felt like had gone willy-nilly into the trolley. But those days were gone. Now it was coming up to the second Christmas of Bill's unemployment and her money was cut to the bone. Any saving, no matter how small, was welcome. Thank God for big impersonal supermarkets, she thought one day as she stood at the cash desk with her trolley full of Yellow Pack and Thrift. It would be a tad mortifying if the neighbours saw her or the girl at the check-out knew her. That was always a little worry. Silly, she knew, but she couldn't help it.
It wasn't that Kathy normally gave a hoot what people thought of her, it was just these days she seemed to be a bit more vulnerable. Only the other day her seven-year-old son, Matthew, had come in, his little face scarlet with emotion.
"Mammy! Jason Pierce says that Daddy's got no job an' that we're going to be poor an' that you can't afford to take us to Euro Disney. He's a big liar, isn't he? I told him to put his dukes up an' I gave him a puck in the snot an' he went home bawling," her son added with immense satisfaction.
"Say 'and,' Matthew, not 'an,' " Kathy corrected automatically, hoping that Jason Pierce's nose was well and truly bloodied. Little brat! Since the Pierces had moved in next door, six months ago, there had been nothing but fights with the youngsters in the cul-de-sac. It wasn't really Jason's fault; it was that obnoxious father of his, Owen. Owen Pierce was the most big-headed, boastful, superior individual Kathy had ever had the misfortune to encounter.
Owen was a broker, who had begun to make good money. On the way up, he revelled in his yuppie lifestyle. He and his wife, Carol, and their two children Jason and Emma, had moved into the house next door mid-summer, and had proceeded to make themselves utterly unpopular with their neighbours.
At first, the six other families in the cul-de-sac had welcomed them and been friendly and chatty but gradually Owen's thoroughly bumptious ways had begun to grate. It was his hail-fellow-well-met "I'm a broker what do you do for a living?" carry on that got under people's skin. Owen had the biggest satellite dish, the biggest barbecue pit, the most expensive shrubs, the flashiest car. He loved boasting and always made sure that when he was telling Kathy or Bill something, the rest of the neighbours could hear as well.
Kathy normally did not make snap judgements about people, but she knew very soon after she met him that he was someone she couldn't stand.
Late one afternoon she had been sitting out at the front sunbathing and keeping an eye on her two-year-old niece who she was minding for the afternoon. Jessica, her three-year-old, was entertaining her cousin to a tea party with her toy tea set. They were sitting on an old tartan rug having the greatest fun. Kathy, lulled into a drowsy lethargy by the balmy heat and the sun caressing her face with golden rays, had pushed all her problems to the back of her mind and was content to relax in languorous sloth. Eyelids heavy with drowsiness, she lay on her lounger and felt a rare sense of wellbeing and peace. In the distance she could hear Matthew and Rachel, her elder daughter, playing with their friends across the road.
A bee hummed lazily by, a lark opened his throat and sang his little heart out. Bill had gone into Dublin on the Dart to check out the employment agencies and wouldn't be home for ages so these precious few hours were her own. Kathy's limbs twitched as she sank deeper into relaxation and she was just about to drift off into slumber when a monstrous whining drone jerked her to wakefulness.
Owen was out with his petrol-driven lawnmower. It was, of course, a state-of-the-art lawnmower but Kathy wasn't impressed. Her lovely peaceful afternoon was ruined.
"Hello there, catching a few rays? Carol's out the back on the new swing lounger we bought. You should get one, they're great," he said cheerily as he began to zoom up and down his lawn with the mower.
Smart alec, thought Kathy sourly as she gave a polite wave. He knew very well Bill wasn't working and wouldn't have money to splash out on swinging loungers and the like. She watched him covertly beneath her eyelids. Honest to God but you'd think it was the Botanic Gardens he had to mow, with his petrol lawnmower, instead of a little handkerchief of green that the rest of them managed to mow with electric mowers. The noise of it. She felt like gritting her teeth.
"Carol's trying to get up a tan before we head off to Malta next week. She wants to be able to head right out into it, I've told her she'll probably have to have sunbeds, the sun here just isn't strong enough," Owen announced as he took a breather.
"Hmm," Kathy murmured non-committally. Bullshitter, she fumed. She closed her eyes again, hoping he would take the hint. Five minutes later, he was zooming around her front lawn, which adjoined his in the open-plan design of the houses.
"Might as well do yours while I have the machine out," he declared briskly, coming up right beside her lounger.
"It's OK, Bill will take care of it," she said hastily, pulling up her boob tube which she had slipped down low over her breasts.
"It's no bother," Owen leered, "besides, it will save you a bit on your electricity." Kathy's face flamed. The cheek of him, the utter unmitigated cheek of him. Who the hell did he think he was going on about her electricity? They weren't paupers.
It was as bad as the day Carol had invited her in for a cup of coffee. Carol, with her heavily made-up face and her perfectly manicured nails, who made sure to let Kathy know that she had a woman who came in to clean twice a week and who had timed the coffee invite with the arrival of the woman who did her ironing. Carol's daughter, Emma, was the same age as Jessica and as they sat drinking their freshly ground coffee, the other woman paused in their conversation and said meditatively, "I wonder if I have anything I could give you for Jessica. She and Emma are the same age and Emma has so many clothes. She gets so many presents, I've lots of stuff she's never worn." Kathy was flabbergasted. She'd only met the woman twice, for heaven's sake, and here she was offering her clothes for Jessica. Did she think the Reynoldses were on their uppers just because Bill was unemployed?
Kathy had assured her new next-door neighbour that Jessica had plenty of clothes and hastily finished her coffee and made her escape. Even if Jessica had to go around in rags, she wouldn't accept such impertinent charity from the superior Pierces.
"If you just move your lounger and the girls' rug I'll be finished in a jiffy," Owen ordered.
"Thank you, Owen, but if you don't mind leaving it, Bill will finish it off. The girls are happy playing and I'm trying to relax here," Kathy said politely. She had had just about enough of the boastful, intrusive Owen Pierce for one afternoon.
"Well, if you're sure." Owen was clearly taken aback that she wasn't falling all over him with gratitude.
"I'm sure. Thank you," Kathy said curtly.
"Fine, enjoy yourself," he said stiffly, moving off with injured dignity. Two minutes later, he was mowing the lawn of the neighbour on his other side. Like a bloody dog marking his patch, Kathy thought grimly as she lay back against her cushions.
You weren't very neighbourly, she accused herself silently as she tried to regain her former state of slumberous indolence. Was she being so prickly because her pride was hurting and she didn't want to seem like the poor man at his better's table? If Bill had been working and she'd been free of all her financial worries would she have handled Owen and Carol differently and felt differently towards them? Was she, in fact, just indulging in a fit of extremely large sour grapes?
"Definitely not. Most definitely not, Kathy!" Irene, her other next-door neighbour, retorted emphatically when Kathy, shamefaced, put this scenario to her after telling the other girl of her encounter with Owen earlier that afternoon.
"The pushy shagger!" the other girl exclaimed irritably. "The nerve of him going on about you saving electricity. If he comes near my garden with his lawnmower I'll give him his answer. Who does he think he is? The Lord of the Cul-de-Sac? Those Pierces are as thick as two short planks. It's obvious they're not used to money. Did you ever hear your wan trying to put on the posh accent? I'm telling you, they're the greatest pair of blowholes going and if I didn't dislike them so much I'd feel sorry for them. They haven't a clue!"
Kathy giggled. Irene in full rant was always entertaining. "For God's sake, will you just listen to Superdad." Her neighbour was fit to blow a gasket. She nodded at Owen who was now out in the middle of the street with a gaggle of kids from the cul-de-sac. He was organizing races.
"Now, Emma, you stand there just a bit ahead of Jessica and Catriona and Laura and you, Jason, a bit behind, and then Matthew and Rachel and Patrick...On your marks..."
"Did you ever see the huge odds he gives to his own pair?" Irene murmured. "Come on, kids, beat those two little horrors," she muttered as the race began.
"It's not really their fault." Kathy grinned as she watched Emma and Jason trying to burst a gut to win the race. "I mean he keeps telling them how wonderful they are and of course, naturally, they believe it and our lot just love to bring them down a peg or two."
"I know. It just brings out the pettiness in me watching the carry-on of your man. Last weekend, Jason, God love him, came to the door all togged out in his rugby gear and asked John to come out and play a game of rugby with himself and Big Daddy. 'Aw naw,' says John. 'I'm a soccer man myself.' He's not a bit impressed with any of their carry on. Oh, to be an eight-year-old again." Irene grinned as Owen roared at his son and daughter urging them on to win the race.
"Brilliant race, Jace and Emms," they heard him brag moments later.
"Pleeeze, just pass me the sick bucket." Irene scowled and Kathy didn't feel so bad knowing that it wasn't her straitened circumstances and envy of her neighbours that had put her off Owen, Carol and their offspring.
"Mammy, can we go to Euro Disney sometime?" Matthew's big blue eyes stared up into hers, wide and innocent, as blue as two cornflowers. "Are you listening to me, Mammy?" Kathy came to with a start.
"Of course I'm listening to you, pet, and some day, please God, we'll get to Euro Disney. We'll just have to say a prayer that Daddy gets a job soon and never mind what Jason Pierce says, we're not poor, we're very very lucky to have a lovely house like this and a very special family."
She smiled down at her son who had gone trotting off saying, "Dear Holy God, please let my daddy get a job soon so he can take us to Euro Disney before scummy Jason Pierce goes."
That had been a few days ago and Matthew hadn't mentioned it again, but as Kathy gave her worktops one last wipe, she thought ruefully that it wasn't a prayer that was needed to get them to Euro Disney...it was a miracle.
Sighing deeply she walked into the sitting room and gave a little shiver. The house was cold. She felt so resentful and frustrated that she could no longer just flick a switch and have instant heat. Even though they had tried to conserve oil by turning on the heat later in the evenings, because winter had come early, they had run out of that precious dark liquid a week ago. Since then, Kathy had been lighting the fire and, because they were economizing on fuel, the back boiler was never hot enough to give off more than a lukewarm heat to the radiators. Because of Christmas and all its expenses, they wouldn't be able to afford oil until well into the New Year. If even then.
I'm sick of this, Kathy thought bitterly as she walked over to the floor-to-ceiling window and stared out at the lowering sky that threatened snow. Snow! That was all they needed to make life even more miserable. Come the New Year she was actively going looking for a job. She'd been a clerical officer when she had married Bill. Maybe she should have stayed working instead of taking her lump sum. Then they wouldn't be so hard hit now. If she got a job it would affect Bill's means-tested dole money so the salary would have to be pretty good. Who was going to employ an ex-clerical officer with rusty secretarial skills who wasn't very computer literate, Kathy thought glumly as she straightened the folds in her lace curtains. She had washed them yesterday and they were pristine. Most of the other houses in the cul-de-sac had roller blinds, net curtains being rather old-fashioned, but Kathy had always liked "proper curtains" as her grandmother called them. She hated the idea of people being able to see through her front window. Her home was her haven, not a showpiece for the neighbours to view every time they walked by.
Owen, whose latest foible was practising his putting shots on the front lawn, was always trying to gawk in the window and it gave Kathy no small satisfaction to know that he couldn't see in. Her curtains were her protection from his prying eyes.
He was out now strimming the edges of the grass and she grinned as the catgut broke and flew across the lawn. She knew she was being petty but she didn't care. He just got on her nerves. She had got so fed up of him strolling in front of her windows and playing rugby with Jason on the front lawn that she had asked her brother, a horticulturist, what she could put down to separate the gardens and keep her unwanted neighbour out. A nice thorny orange-berried pyracantha trained along a white wooden picket fence now formed a border between numbers 7 and 8 Maple Wood Drive curtailing Owen's and Jason's sporting activities somewhat.
Jason was driving poor old Matthew around the twist about the new computer he was getting for Christmas. It was going to be "the best computer in the world" with better games than that old Dell one that Matthew had, according to Jason. Every mother in the cul-de-sac could cheerfully have wrung Jason Pierce's neck as their own envious offspring demanded "a best computer" as well.
That's what Bill and Kathy had been arguing about this morning what to buy the children for Christmas. Bill, as sick of penny-pinching as she was, wanted to borrow a couple of hundred euro from the credit union to splash out on Christmas and to hell with it. Kathy had argued that they needed oil. The house insurance was coming up and all of the children needed new shoes. If there was one thing Kathy was very particular about, it was getting good shoes for her children and nowadays a pair of decent shoes for a three-year-old could cost the guts of fifty Euro. Paying out fifty euro each for the three of them would leave her fairly skint.
"We can't afford it and that's that," Kathy asserted. Bill's face darkened with impotent fury.
"Don't rub it in, for Christ's sake! I know we can't. I just want to give the kids a decent Christmas. Is that too much to want?" he snarled.
A red mist descended in front of Kathy's eyes. It wasn't her fault that they had no money. She was only trying to keep them out of debt. "Listen, mister, you can do what you damn well like. I was only trying to help. Do you think I don't want to give them a good Christmas? I'm trying to do my best for all of us and it's not easy. So don't you take it out on me, Bill. It's not my fault you're unemployed. It's not me who can't get a job." Kathy was so angry her voice was shaking as months of suppressed rage, fear and frustration fuelled her outburst.
"God, you really know how to put the boot in, don't you?" Bill raged. "You should have married someone like bloody Superdad over there, not a loser like me." With that he'd picked up his anorak and strode out of the front door, slamming it hard behind him. Sick at heart, Kathy sat down at the kitchen table, put her head in her hands and bawled her eyes out. She had never felt so sorry for herself in her life. What had she done to deserve this? She sniffled. After a good twenty minutes of alternate cursing and sobbing she felt somewhat better. A good cry was just the thing sometimes, it helped to get it all out of your system. Fortunately the children had spent the previous night on a sleep-over with their cousins so they hadn't witnessed the row. She didn't want them being upset as well.
It was almost 3 P.M., Kathy noted, and still no sign of Bill. She wondered what he was doing. It had got even darker outside, the clouds so low they seemed almost to touch the rooftops. The frost, which hadn't thawed all day, cast a silvery sheen to the lawns, the flaming orange of the pyracantha berries a startling contrast. The stark silhouettes of leafless trees encircled the culde-sac protectively; a robin nestled in the shelter of an evergreen shrub. Normally Kathy would have enjoyed the picturesque, wintry scene outside her big window but today it just seemed bleak and cold and again she shivered.
"To hell with it," she muttered crossly and with a determined set to her jaw she walked over to the fire and struck a match, watching with pleasure as the flames caught the firelighters and roared up the chimney, the kindling catching fire, spitting and sparking and scenting the room with the freshness of pine. The glow of the orange-yellow flames casting their shadows on the walls soothed Kathy. She sat cross-legged on the rug in front of the fire and pulled two large carrier bags, overflowing with presents, in front of her. This was the ideal time to sort out the Christmas present situation. It was something she had been putting off all day, but she might as well do it while Bill and the kids were out of the house. If she were quick and organized, she'd have her task complete before he was home. Then her husband wouldn't have the added indignity of seeing the presents they had received last year being wrapped to be given to their relatives this year. If only she could remember who had given her what. It would be a disaster to return a gift to someone who had given it to them in the first place.
Kathy gave a wry smile as she unloaded the bags onto the floor. The only other time in her life when she had had to recycle presents was that first year she had moved into a flat with her two best friends and they had all been practically penniless. It had been fun then, though, not like this.
She eyed the assorted collection surrounding her. Tablemats, they could go to Aunt Sadie. A basket of Body Shop soaps and shampoos. Now who had given her them? She cast her mind back, was it Clare? No, it was Rita, her sister-in-law. Well, Clare could have the Body Shop basket and Rita could have the lovely red angora scarf that her godmother had given her. Kathy fingered the scarf, enjoying the feel of the soft luxurious wool between her fingers. It would have been nice to have been able to wear it herself, she thought regretfully, but needs must and Rita would like it.
She wanted to give her sister-in-law a nice present. Rita was very good to them, as indeed were all of their families. That was why Kathy wanted to give them presents at Christmas. And she wanted to show that she and Bill were not completely on their uppers. This year, she decided, she would keep a list of who gave what, so that next Christmas, if Bill were still unemployed, it would be easier for her to match up presents. If people saw her this minute, no doubt they would think she was dreadfully mean, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances.
She spent a peaceful hour sitting in the fire's glow sorting out the presents and wrapping them. She had just stood up and was trying to get rid of the pins and needles in her feet when she saw Bill marching into the cul-de-sac. He was lugging the biggest, bushiest Christmas tree she had ever seen. A broad grin creased her face. Bill was a sucker for Christmas trees. The bigger and bushier the better.
She flung open the front door as her husband struggled up the path with his load. Panting, he stood looking at her. "I'm sorry, love. I didn't mean it." Their eyes met and a flicker of happiness ignited briefly. "You're the best wife a man could have and I know I'm dead lucky."
"Oh Bill, it's all right, I didn't mean what I said either." Kathy, happy that their little tiff was over, flung her arms around him, ignoring the prickly tree, and was rewarded with a one-armed bear hug. "It's brilliant, where did you get it?" She eyed the tree admiringly.
"Down in Ringsend from a fella on a lorry. Look at the width of it and look at the fullness up top and the symmetry is almost perfect." Bill, who was a connoisseur of Christmas trees, enthused about his find. "It's the best ever."
"You say that every year." Kathy laughed. "Come on in, I have the fire lighting. It was cold so I lit it early so the place will be warm when the kids get home," she added a little defensively.
"You did right, Kathy, it's bloody freezing out today," Bill declared stoutly and they smiled at each other. "Hey, what do you think if I rang Rita and asked her to keep the kids for another hour or two and we decorated the tree for them as a surprise?"
"Oh yeah, just imagine their faces." Kathy felt her previous despondency lift as a rare light-heartedness enveloped her. "Do you think Rita would mind?"
"Naw." Bill shook his head. "Sure we'll take her gang if she wants to go shopping or anything."
"Right," Kathy said briskly, "you ring her and I'll put the kettle on and we'll have a cup of coffee then get going." Unemployment be damned, they were going to have the best Christmas tree ever.
Rita obligingly agreed to keep the children for longer and gratefully agreed to Kathy's offer to take her own children the following afternoon so she could do some Sunday shopping in peace and quiet. For the next two hours Kathy and Bill thoroughly enjoyed themselves as they transformed the six-foot tree into a magical delight adorned with twinkling lights and glittering ornaments and frothy tinsel.
They laced the ceiling with festive garlands and Kathy prepared the crib, decorating it with scrumpled black paper to give the impression of mountains and twining ivy across the top and down the sides. She arranged a little light in at the back and laid the straw that she kept year after year on the floor of the crib. Bill hung up a sheriff's star from an old cowboy set that he had had as a child and it glittered in the fire light as bright as any star of Bethlehem. They would have a little ceremony when the children were home. Jessica, being the youngest, would solemnly place Baby Jesus in the crib.
They stood back to admire their handiwork. "It's lovely," Bill declared, as Kathy fussed at a piece of ivy, wanting to have it just so.
"So is the tree." Kathy smiled. "Definitely the best ever."
"It's a biggie all right." Bill grinned.
"Bigger than Superdad's," Kathy murmured wickedly. Bill caught her knowing eye and laughed.
"And real as well. Poor Jason has to make do with an artificial yoke, even if it is the biggest and most expensive one there is. It's just not the same, sure it isn't?" His eyes twinkled.
Owen and Carol had put their tree up over a week ago. They had been the first in the cul-de-sac to put one up. Great wreaths of holly hung on their doors and windows and Jason and Emma were bursting with pride. Each day, Matthew enquired anxiously if they were going to put their tree up and Kathy reassured her young son that indeed they would. She was dying to see his face when he saw the six-foot giant that now reposed all alight in their front window.
Ravenous after their exertions they decided they deserved a rare treat and ordered a Chinese. They ate it sitting in front of the fire, thoroughly enjoying their spare ribs in barbecue sauce, their crispy duck and their prawn crackers. The twinkling lights of the Christmas tree and the amber luminescence of the fire enveloped them in a cocoon of golden warmth as rain and sleet lashed against the windows and the wind howled like a banshee as it swirled and eddied around the cul-de-sac. Kathy and Bill enjoyed their fireside meal, all their troubles put behind them for the precious few hours they had to themselves. Later they made slow, tender love in the firelight. It was the nicest time they'd had in ages and Kathy, renewed in spirit, felt she could face anything.
That evening, the dishes tidied, the lights of the tree switched off and the sitting room in darkness, they heard Rita's car in the drive. The children, tumbling out of the car, ran to greet their parents and shelter from the sleety rain. "I won't come in," Rita yelled, sticking her head out of the window. "I'll see you tomorrow around two with my gang."
"Fine, Rita, thanks a million," Kathy called back as Bill helped the trio divest themselves of coats and hats. Waving at her sister-in-law as she reversed down the drive, Kathy was glad to close the door and shut out the wintry night.
"We have a surprise for you now. You've got to close your eyes and no peeping," Bill warned as he led Rachel, Matthew and Jessica to the sitting-room door.
"What is it? What is it?" Matthew was hopping from one leg to the other with impatience.
"Matthew, they're not going to tell you 'cos it won't be a surprise then," Rachel said sagely, doing her big-sister act, but Kathy could see her eyes sparkling with anticipation.
"Huwwy on." Jessica had her fingers up to her eyes and was peering anxiously through them. Watching the capers of the three of them Kathy experienced a rare moment of happiness and knew that whatever happened in the future no one could ever take these precious moments away from her.
"Keep those eyes shut," Bill warned as Kathy took Jessica by the hand and led them into the darkened sitting room illuminated only by the firelight and the little red lamp in the crib. "Open up!" Bill ordered as he plugged in the lights. He hugged Kathy as the children squealed with delight and excitement.
"Oh Daddy, it's MEGA!" Matthew was beside himself.
"Oh Mammy, isn't it beeeautiful?" Rachel breathed. Jessica stood speechless, her big blue eyes getting rounder by the minute. Hesitantly she stretched out a chubby little hand and touched one of the ornaments.
"Tanta Plause," she exclaimed triumphantly, stroking the little fat Santa, her eyes as bright as the Christmas tree lights.
"Oh look at the crib, Mammy. Can we put the Baby Jesus in?" Rachel beseeched.
"Daddy and I were waiting until you came home so we could say a little prayer to welcome Baby Jesus into our family." Kathy smiled and hugged her elder daughter. She wanted her children to appreciate the special spirituality of Christmas and the crib ceremony was one of their most important family events.
With great solemnity, Rachel placed the infant Jesus in his manger in her younger sister's hands and guided the toddler to the correct spot in the centre of the straw, between Mary and Joseph.
"Welcome, Baby Jesus," they all chorused reverently.
"And we hope you'll be very comfortable in your manger," Rachel added as she patted the straw down. Jessica planted a big wet kiss on the newly installed infant.
"I bet he will be comfortable, our crib is much nicer than Jason Pierce's an' they don't have a light or straw either," Matthew declared with satisfaction as he took a bit of straw and placed it in front of the two little sheep on the mountainside. "In case they're hungry," he explained to his parents who were having a very hard time keeping their faces straight.
The following Monday morning Bill arrived upstairs with a cup of early morning tea for his wife. "What kind of a day is it?" Kathy murmured sleepily. She and Bill were going shopping for the Santa toys. They had decided on a compromise and planned to borrow one hundred and fifty euro from the credit union and use a hundred euro out of the two hundred and fifty that Kathy had managed to put by for expenses. Through a chink in the curtains she could see a sliver of daylight. The wind of the previous two days had died down.
Bill drew back the curtains and peered out. "I don't believe it," she heard him say. "Kathy, come here, you've just got to see this!"
"What?" she asked intrigued, wrapping the duvet around her as protection from the early morning chill. She followed her husband's pointing finger. And burst out laughing. "What a prat! What a prize prat," she chortled as she viewed an outsized noble fir decorated with multi-coloured lights, standing in a tub in the centre of the Pierces' front lawn.
All in all it hadn't been a bad Christmas, Kathy decided as she put the finishing touches to the creamy homemade vegetable soup she was serving as a starter for lunch with Mari. It was made with the stock of the turkey bones and there was eating and drinking in it. There'd be plenty for tomorrow she thought with satisfaction.
It was the day after Stephen's Day and Bill had taken the children on the Dart into Dublin to go to the pictures, so Kathy and her friend could have a bit of peace. Kathy had lit the fire early and had piled on the coal and briquettes so that the back boiler was boiling and the radiators were fine and hot. They were going through coal at an awful rate. Once the children were back at school it would be back to lighting a fire in the evening. Still at least the house was warm for her guest today.
It had been two years since Mari had last been home. Kathy had known her since they were in their teens. They'd gone to secondary school together and worked in the civil service before Mari had fallen in love with a young doctor. They had married and gone to live in Dubai ten years ago. Kathy and she kept in touch by email and the occasional phone call. Mari had come back home several times over the years and Kathy had marvelled at how glamorous and sophisticated her friend had become.
She had by all accounts a glittering lifestyle out in the Emirates. A life full of parties and shopping and exotic travel. Her husband, Brett, had become a very successful consultant and now they were very affluent. Brett and Owen would get on well, Kathy reflected, grinning. In fact it would be hilarious to listen to the pair of them trying to outdo each other.
She lifted the lid of the saucepan beside the soup and added the chopped chives to the flaked salmon in cream and wine sauce that was simmering gently. Her mother had made a Christmas pudding and trifle for her and her mother-in-law had baked a Christmas cake so at least she had dessert and afternoon tea taken care of. She also had a decent Chardonnay chilling. Someone had given it to her ages ago and she had put it aside for a special occasion. This was just such an occasion.
It was just as well Mari had picked the day after Stephen's Day because there was precious little left in the kitty and what was in the fridge was going to have to do them for the rest of the week. Still, Rachel and Matthew had been thrilled with their new bikes and Jessica was playing her ABC computer morning, noon and night. It had been a good idea putting those few euro from the children's allowance aside over the year. It had gone a long way towards paying for their Santa gifts.
Kathy turned down the salmon even lower and went to give a last look over the house. She had hoovered and dusted thoroughly that morning and the house was fragrant with polish and pot pourri. A thought struck her and she ran upstairs to her bedroom and slid open her sliderobes. On the bottom shelf of her make-up area there was a three-quarters-full roll of soft green toilet paper. Kathy took it and went into the main bathroom to replace the cheap, rough, off-white thrift roll that was in the toilet-roll holder. Maybe she was being daft but she badly wanted to keep up appearances. She always kept the expensive roll for when there were visitors. There was no need for Mari to know anything about Bill being unemployed. She couldn't explain exactly why she didn't want her friend to know of their plight. Mari wouldn't look down her nose at them in the least, she wasn't a bit like that for all her wealth. She'd be very sympathetic if anything. It was just her silly pride, Kathy decided. But Bill's being unemployed seemed almost tantamount to failure in the light of Brett's success. It was a horrible thing to think, she scolded herself shamefaced, but even so...
Just for good measure, she produced a box of matching tissues that she was also keeping for "good wear" out of her wardrobe, and placed them on the shelf under the mirror. They gave a nice coordinated touch and, satisfied, Kathy went back downstairs to await her guest.
She paused in front of the mirror to check her appearance. She'd got her hair cut and blow dried on Christmas Eve and it still looked good, and a bit of make-up did wonders. The last year had added a few grey hairs to her chestnut curls, she thought ruefully, and the fine lines around her wide hazel eyes had deepened perceptibly. Still, she didn't look too bad considering and the cream pants and amber blouse looked very well on her. A ring on the doorbell made her jump and she glanced hastily at her watch. Mari was early.
"Happy Christmas," came the cheerful greeting as Kathy opened the door and was hugged warmly by her friend who was certainly dressed for the weather in a magnificent, expensive sable coat.
"Come in, come in." Now that she was here Kathy was delighted to see her.
"God above, I'm freezing." Mari grimaced as she shut the door behind her.
"I've a blazing fire lighting, come in and sit down beside it," Kathy urged, leading the way into the sitting room.
"I've been cold since I came home," Mari explained. "The heat thins your blood and I know the animal lovers won't approve of the coat but it really stops me from freezing to death." She looked tired, Kathy thought, despite the fact that her make-up was perfectly applied and her blonde, high-lighted hair in its classical chignon was the height of chic.
"Well how are you, Kathy? How are the gang?" Mari smiled as she moved towards the big armchair in front of the fire and held out her hands to the blaze.
"I'm fine, we're all fine," Kathy said cheerfully. "Sit down there and relax, and what will you have to drink?"
"I have the car, Kathy, so I'll just have one glass of wine," Mari replied and Kathy gave a mental sigh of relief. The good wine would last through lunch and she wouldn't have to open that awful bottle of plonk she'd bought on special offer. She should have remembered, Mari always hired a car when she was home. She took her friend's coat and hung it on the hallstand and went to the kitchen to pour the wine, which she had chilling in the fridge. "There's a lovely smell." Mari followed her in. "What's for lunch?"
"Salmon and pasta," Kathy answered as she did the business with the corkscrew.
"Oh yum, you always made great pasta dishes, Kathy." Mari lifted the lid of the saucepan and sniffed appreciatively. "I've really been looking forward to seeing you and catching up on all the craic and the gossip. Where're Bill and the children?"
Kathy handed her a glass of wine. "He took them into Dublin on the Dart, for a treat. They've gone to the pictures." Mari's face fell.
"I will get to see them, won't I?"
"Oh indeed you will," laughed Kathy.
"Oh good, I've brought them a few presents and I've a bottle of brandy for yourself and Bill."
"Mari, you shouldn't have," Kathy exclaimed. Her friend was terribly good like that and, knowing that she wouldn't come empty-handed, Kathy had wrapped up a hardback copy of bestselling author Miranda Carr's brand new novel, which her Aunt Patti had given her. She'd been dying to read it herself but she knew that Mari, who was an avid reader, would thoroughly enjoy it and it was a decent present to give her old friend.
"I suppose I won't recognize the children." Mari sipped her wine appreciatively. "Jessica was only a baby the last time I was home."
"Well, she's well and truly a little girl now, marauding all over the place and up to all kinds of mischief," Kathy grinned. Mari had no children but she always took an interest in Rachel, Matthew and Jessica and always brought them something on her trips home from Dubai.
"Will I serve up our lunch now?" Kathy cocked an eyebrow at the other woman.
"Why not, if it's OK with you. I haven't eaten all morning and I feel a bit peckish," Mari agreed.
"Go on into the dining room and sit down and I'll bring in the soup," Kathy instructed. She had the dining table set with the good silverware and crystal and her best linen tablecloth and napkins. And she had a lovely centrepiece on the table made up of holly and ivy that she and Bill had picked in the woods. She lit the candles, served the soup and garlic bread and the pair of them sat down to a good natter.
Although Mari had said she was peckish she didn't do justice to the meal and Kathy was terribly perturbed that perhaps she hadn't liked the dish. Her friend always ate like a horse and never put on an ounce, unlike Kathy who only had to look at a cream cake to put on weight.
"Was it OK, maybe it was a bit rich?" Kathy said apologetically.
"No, no! It was fine. Really!" Mari assured her. "I just wasn't as hungry as I thought."
They had their coffee by the fire, chatting about inconsequential things and somehow Kathy, listening to tales of the glamorous life in the Emirates, just couldn't bring herself to tell Mari that Bill was unemployed.
He and the children arrived home around six and they were full of their trip on the Dart and their visit to the cinema and McDonalds.
"It's lovely and warm in here," Matthew said appreciatively, and Kathy, being extra sensitive on this day, prayed that her son would keep his mouth shut and say nothing else. She didn't want her affluent friend thinking that the house wasn't always this warm.
When Mari produced their presents there was as much excitement as when Santa's arrival had been discovered on Christmas morning. Mari was in her element as they all vied for hugs and kisses before Bill took the three of them out to the kitchen to get some hot nourishing soup into them.
Rachel, en route to the kitchen, sighed and said wistfully, "I wish it was Christmas every day of the year so we could always have this gorgeous food." Kathy nearly died. Her face actually flamed as she stood waiting for her child to say something like she was sick of beans and mince and fish fingers, but she said nothing else and carried on after her sister and brother.
"Turkey and ham and Christmas pud always seem so exotic when you're a child, don't they?" Mari remarked innocently, quite unaware of her friend's angst.
"Hmm," agreed Kathy distractedly. God only knew what the children were going to come out with next to land her in. She should have been honest with Mari at the beginning and told her about Bill being unemployed. There was no shame in it. It could happen to anyone, but it would look a bit odd to go suddenly blurting it out now, especially when she had led Mari to believe that everything was normal in the Reynolds' household. She was going to be on tenterhooks for the rest of the evening. She must excuse herself for a minute and grab Bill and tell him to say nothing about being unemployed. She'd tell him she'd explain later. He'd probably be annoyed with her and feel that she was ashamed of him. By trying to keep up a façade she'd made a right mess of things, she thought miserably.
"They're just gorgeous, Kathy. You're so lucky," Mari said enviously, interrupting her friend's musings.
"I know that," Kathy agreed, carefully folding up the expensive wrapping paper and mentally reflecting that it would come in handy next year.
"Mammy, I did wee wee all by myself." Jessica appeared at the door with her dress caught up in her little panties.
"You're a great girl!" her mother exclaimed. "Come here until I tuck in your vest." Jessica cuddled in against her as Kathy adjusted her clothing.
"There's lobely soft toilet woll in the bathwoom, it's nice and soft on my bum bum," Jessica announced, staring at Mari.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Kathy thought in mortification. Next she'll be saying we're poor people or something. Heart-scalded, flustered, she told her daughter to go back out to the kitchen to finish her soup. Jessica wrapped her little arms around her neck. "I lobe you, Mammy. The next time will you come to the pictures?"
"Of course I will, lovey." Kathy hugged the little girl to her before she went trotting out to the kitchen.
"She's so beautiful," Mari said and her voice sounded terribly sad. Kathy caught her friend's gaze and to her dismay saw that Mari's eyes were bright with tears.
"God! What's wrong, Mari," Kathy exclaimed, closing the door and rushing over to her side. "What is it? Tell me what's wrong." Kathy was horrified, putting her arms around the distraught woman.
"Me and Brett, we're finished. He's been having an affair with this American bimbo half his age and now she's pregnant and he wants a divorce. He wouldn't let me come off the pill, he kept saying to wait another year and then another and now this tart's pregnant and it's fine by him. I hate him, the bastard." Mari sobbed. "I didn't want to tell you, I was just too ashamed."
Kathy couldn't believe her ears. What a shit. She knew Mari had always wanted children.
"You've nothing to be ashamed about," she said, outraged. "He's the skunk. He's not worthy of you."
Mari lifted her head from Kathy's neck. "I don't know why I feel ashamed, I did nothing to be ashamed about. It's just...Oh you know what I mean, Kathy, my poor mother will be mortified. The first divorce in the family, what will the relations say?" She hiccuped.
"Don't mind the relations or anyone. It's your life and your business." Kathy snorted.
"And then when I see how happy you are with Bill and those beautiful children...I just couldn't tell you. Can you understand?" Mari managed a wry smile.
"I understand exactly," Kathy said slowly. "Actually, Mari, I've been keeping something from you as well." She met her friend's tear-stained gaze. "Bill's been out of work for over fourteen months and it's a bit of a struggle. Like you, I just couldn't bring myself to say it out straight. I wanted to keep up appearances. I'm sorry, it was just silly pride."
"Oh Lord, I know." Mari gave a shaky grin. "But that's awful for you and Bill. He'll get another job and at least the pair of you are as crazy about each other as ever. You can spot that a mile off. God, I was so gutted when I found out about Brett and that...that pea-brained, simpering idiot who's got her claws into him. The thing that hurt most of all is that she's pregnant. Every time I suggested trying for a baby he said to wait another year. He didn't want his cushy lifestyle disrupted by crying babies. I'll probably never have a child of my own now." Her voice wobbled and she burst into tears again.
"Of course you will, you'll meet someone, you're still a relatively young woman," Kathy soothed, shocked by what she had just heard. Her own circumstances might not be the best but they were a hell of a lot better than Mari's. No wonder the poor girl couldn't eat her lunch. No wonder she'd seemed so on edge for the afternoon.
"I haven't told the family yet. Ma will have a fit."
"She'll get over it."
"It's such a relief to tell someone, Kathy," Mari confessed, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "It's been so hard being at home and everyone thinking everything's normal. I told them Brett couldn't come home because of the situation in Iraq...A bit feeble, I know, but no one's questioned it. It's bloody hard trying to keep up the façade."
"Of course it's been hard, Mari, but you've got to tell them. You can't go around keeping that to yourself. You'd crack up. And I know your family, they'll be very supportive, it's amazing how kind people are when the chips are down. I know," she added ruefully.
"Oh Kathy, what idiots we've been, trying to put on brave faces. If we can't tell each other our problems then who can we tell?" Mari said.
"Exactly!" Kathy agreed. "Now look, why don't you phone home and tell them you're staying the night and we'll open the brandy you brought and have a really good natter about things."
"Oh Kathy, that would be lovely," Mari sighed, beginning to feel better already.
"I'll just run up and put the heat on in the spare bedroom, and fish out some towels and a clean nightdress." Kathy patted her on the shoulder.
"Now don't go to any trouble," Mari remonstrated.
"It's no trouble for an old pal," Kathy said firmly.
She switched on the radiator and laid a clean, long-sleeved nightdress on Mari's bed. That would keep her snug, she thought, and she'd put the electric blanket on later. To hell with the electricity bill for once. Mari was undergoing a bad enough trauma without spending the night shivering in bed.
Kathy stood at the bedroom window staring out into the night. A sliver of new moon hid behind a wisp of cloud. The lights of the Christmas trees illuminated the cul-de-sac. Below, Owen's noble fir stood proudly on his front lawn. Owen had got a new Saab for Christmas and had spent a lot of time sitting in it making calls on his car phone. Kathy smiled. He was pathetically childish really. Maybe there was some reason for his childish behaviour. Maybe he'd had a terribly deprived childhood. Who knew? Who knew what went on in people's lives? Who knew what went on behind the façades? Look at poor Mari. Who would have believed it?
No matter what, she and Bill were lucky, they had each other and they had the children. She could hear them laughing and chattering in the kitchen. Gently pulling the curtains, Kathy straightened the folds, switched off the light and went downstairs to her friend.
"Façades" copyright © 2004 by Patricia Scanlan