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This Year It Will Be Different
Ethel wondered had it anything to do with her name. Apart from Ethel Merman there didn't seem to be many racy Ethels; she didn't know any Ethels who took charge of their own lives.
At school there had been two other Ethels. One was a nun in the Third World, which was a choice, of course, but not a racy choice. The other was a gray sort of person, she had been gray as a teenager and she was even grayer in her forties. She worked as a minder to a Selfish Personality. She described the work as Girl Friday; it was, in fact, Dogsbody, which scanned perfectly, and after all, words mean what you want them to mean.
These were no role models, Ethel told herself. But anyway, even if it weren't a question of having a meek name, a woman couldn't change overnight. Only in movies did a happily married mother of three suddenly call a family conference and say that this year she was tired of the whole thing, weary of coming home after work and cleaning the house and buying the Christmas decorations and putting them up, buying the Christmas cards, writing them and posting them so that they would keep the few friends they had.
Only in a film would Ethel say that she had had it up to here with Christmas countdowns, and timing the brandy butter, and the chestnut stuffing, and the bacon rolls, and bracing herself for the cry "No sausages?" when a groaning platter of turkey and trimmings was hauled in from the kitchen.
She who had once loved cooking, who had delighted in her family's looking up at her hopefully waiting to be fed, now loathed the thought of what the rest of the world seemed to regard as the whole meaning of Christmas.
But there would be no big scene. What was the point of ruining everyone else's Christmas by a lecture on how selfish they all were? Ethel had a very strong sense of justice. If her husband never did a hand's turn in the kitchen, then some of the blame was surely Ethel's. From the very beginning she should have expected that he would share the meal preparation with her, assumed it, stood smiling, waiting for him to help. But twenty-five years ago women didn't do that. Young women whooshed their young husbands back to the fire and the evening newspaper. They were all mini-Superwomen then. It wasn't fair to move the goalposts in middle age.
Any more than it was fair to stage a protest against her two sons and daughter. From the start those children had been told that the first priority was their studies. Their mother had always cleared away the meal after supper to leave them space and time to do their homework, or their university essays, or their computer practice. When other women had got a dishwasher, Ethel had said the family should have a word processor. Why should she complain now?
And everyone envied her having two strong, handsome sons around the house, living with her from choice. Other people's twenty-three- and twenty-two-year-olds were mad keen to leave home. Other women with a nineteen-year-old daughter said they were demented with pleas about living in a bed-sitter, a commune, a squat. Ethel was considered lucky, and she agreed with this. She was the first to say she had got more than her fair share of good fortune.
Until this year. This year she felt she was put upon. If she saw one more picture of a forty-seven-year-old woman smiling at her out of a magazine with the body of an eighteen-year-old, gleaming skin, fifty-six white, even teeth, and shiny hair, Ethel was going to go after her with a carving knife.
This year, for the first time, she did not look forward to Christmas. This year she had made the calculation: the thought, the work, the worry, the bone-aching tiredness on one side of the scales; the pleasure of the family on the other. They didn't even begin to balance. With a heavy heart she realized that it wasn't worth it.
She didn't do anything dramatic. She didn't do anything at all. She bought no tree, she mended no fairy lights, she sent six cards to people who really needed cards. There was no excited talking about weights of turkey and length of time cooking the ham as in other years. There were no lists, no excursions for late-night shopping. She came home after work, made the supper, cleared it away, washed up and sat down and looked at the television.
Eventually they noticed.
"When are you getting the tree, Ethel?" her husband asked her good-naturedly.
"The tree?" She looked at him blankly, as if it were a strange Scandinavian custom that hadn't hit Ireland.
He frowned. "Sean will get the tree this year," he said, looking thunderously at his elder son.
"Are the mince pies done yet?" Brian asked her.
She smiled at him dreamily.
"Done?" she asked.
"Made, like, cooked. You know, in tins, like always." He was confused.
"I'm sure the shops are full of them, all right," she said.
Ethel's husband shook his head warningly at Brian, the younger son.
The subject was dropped.
Next day Theresa said to the others that there was no turkey in the freezer, nor had one been ordered. And Ethel turned up the television so that she wouldn't hear the family conference that she knew was going on in the kitchen.
They came to her very formally. They reminded her of a trade union delegation walking up the steps to arbitration. Or like people delivering a letter of protest at an embassy.
"This year it's going to be different, Ethel." Her husband's voice was gruff at the awkward unfamiliar words. "We realize that we haven't been doing our fair share. No, don't deny it, we have all discussed it and this year you'll find that it will be different."
"We'll do all the washing-up after Christmas dinner," Sean said. And clear away all the wrapping paper," added Brian. "And I'll ice the cake when you've made it. I mean after the almond icing," Theresa said.
She looked at them all, one by one, with a pleasant smile, as she always had.
"That would be very nice," she said. She spoke somehow remotely. She knew they wanted more. They wanted her to leap up there and then and put on a pinny, crying that now she knew they would each do one chore then she would work like a demon to catch up. Buzz, buzz, fuss, fuss. But she didn't have the energy, she wished they would stop talking about it.
Her husband patted her hand.
"Not just words, you know, Ethel. We have very concrete plans and it will begin before Christmas. Actually it will begin tomorrow. So don't come into the kitchen for a bit, we want to finalize our discussions."
They all trooped back to the kitchen again. She lay back in her chair. She hadn't wanted to punish them, to withhold affection, to sulk her way into getting a bit more help. It was no carefully planned victory, no cunning ploy.
She could hear them murmuring and planning; she could hear their voices getting excited and them shushing each other. They were trying so hard to make up for the years of not noticing. Yes, that is all it was. Simply not noticing how hard she worked.
It just hadn't dawned on them how unequal was the situation where five adults left this house in the morning to go out to work and one adult kept the house running as well.
Of course, she could always give up her job and be a full-time wife and mother. But that seemed a foolish thing to do now, at this stage, when the next stage would be the empty nest that people talked about. They were all saving for deposits, so they didn't really give her much, and they were her own children. You couldn't ask them for real board and lodging, could you?
No, no, it was her own fault that they hadn't seen how hard she worked and how tired she was. Or hadn't seen until now. She listened happily to the conversation in the kitchen. Well, now they knew, God bless them. Perhaps it hadn't been a bad thing at all to be a bit listless, even though it hadn't come from within, it wasn't an act she had put on.
Next morning they asked her what time she'd be home from work.
"Well, like every day, around half-past six," she said.
"Could you make it half-past seven?" they asked.
She could indeed, she could have a nice drink with her friend Maire from work. Maire, who said that she was like a mat for that family to walk on. It would be deeply satisfying to tell Maire that she couldn't go home since the family were doing all the pre-Christmas preparations for her.
"You could always go to the supermarket." Theresa said.
"Am I to do any shopping?" Ethel was flustered. She had thought they were seeing to all that.
She saw the boys frown at Theresa.
"Or do whatever you like, I mean," Theresa said.
"You won't forget foil will you?" Ethel said anxiously. If they were going to do all this baking, it would be awful if they ran out of things.
"Foil?" They looked at her blankly.
"Maybe I'll come back early and give you a bit of a hand..."
There was a chorus of disagreement.
Nobody wanted that. No, no she was to stay out. It was four days before Christmas, this would be a Christmas like no other, wait and see, but she couldn't be at home.
They all went off to work or college.
She noticed that the new regime hadn't involved clearing away their breakfast things, but Ethel told herself it would be curmudgeonly to complain about clearing away five cups and saucers and plates and cornflake bowls and washing them and drying them. She wanted to leave the kitchen perfect for them and all they were going to do.
She wondered that they hadn't taken out the cookery books. She would leave them in a conspicuous place, together with all those cookery articles she had cut from the paper and clipped together with a big clothes-peg. But she must stop fussing, she'd be late for work.
Maire was delighted with the invitation to a drink after work. "What happened? Did they all fly off to the Bahamas without you or something?" she asked.
Ethel laughed; that was just Maire's way, making little of the married state.
She hugged her secret to herself. Her family who were going to do everything. Things were exciting at the office, they were all going to get new office furniture in the new year, the old stuff was being sold off at ridiculous prices. Ethel wondered would Sean like the computer table, or would Brian like the small desk. Nothing would be too good for them this year. But then, did secondhand goods look shabby, as if you didn't care?
With the unaccustomed buzz of two hot whiskeys to light her home, Ethel came up the path and let herself in the door.
"I'm back," she called. "May I come into the kitchen?"
They were standing there, sheepish and eager. Her heart was full for them. While she had been out drinking whiskey with lemon and cloves in it, stretching her legs and talking about the new office layout with Maire, they had been slaving. Poor Maire had to go back to her empty flat, while lucky Ethel had this family who had promised her that things would be different this year. She felt a prickling around her nose and eyes and hoped that she wasn't going to cry.
She never remembered them giving her a treat or a surprise. This is what made this one all the better. For her birthday it had been a couple of notes folded over, from her husband a request to buy herself something nice. Cards from the children. Not every year. And for Christmas they clubbed together to get her something that the house needed. Last year it had been an electric can-opener. The year before it had been lagging for the cylinder.
How could she have known that they would change?
They looked at her, all of them waiting for her reaction. They wanted her to love it, whatever they had done.
She hoped they had found the candied peelit was in one of those cartons without much identification on it, but even if they hadn't she'd say nothing.
She looked around the kitchen. There was no sign of anything baked or blended or stirred or mixed or prepared.
And still they looked at her, eager and full of anticipation.
She followed their eyes. A large and awkward-looking television set took up the only shelf of work space that had any length or breadth in it.
An indoor aerial rose from it perilously, meaning that the shelves behind it couldn't be got at.
They stood back so that she could view the full splendor of it.
Sean turned it on with a flourish, like a ringmaster at a circus. "Da-daaaaa!" he cried.
It was black-and-white.
"Terribly sharp image," Sean said.
"More restful, really, on older eyes, they say," Orla soothed her.
"And you wouldn't need more than RTE 1 anyway, even if you could get it. I mean, too much choice is worse than too little," said Brian.
"I told you this Christmas was going to be different to the others." Her husband beamed at her.
From now on she could look at television as well as the rest of them; she'd be as informed and catch up on things and not be left out, just because she had to be in the kitchen.
All around her they stood, a circle of goodwill waiting to share in her delight. From very far away she heard their voices. Sean had known a fellow who did up televisions, Dad had given the money, Brian had gone to collect it in someone's van. Theresa had bought the plug and put it on herself.
Years of hiding her disappointment stood to Ethel at this moment. The muscles of her face sprang into action. The mouth into an ooooh of delight, the eyes into surprise and excitement; the hands even clasped themselves automatically.
With the practiced steps of a dancer she made the movements that they expected. Her hand went out like an automaton to stroke the hideous, misshapen television that took up most of her kitchen.
As they went back to wait for her to make the supper, happy that they had bought her the gift that would change everything, Ethel got to work in the kitchen.
She had taken off her coat and put on her pinny. She edged around the large television set and mentally rearranged every shelf and bit of storage that she had.
She felt curiously apart from everything, and in her head she kept hearing their voices saying that this Christmas was going to be different.
They were right, it felt different; but surely it couldn't be on account of this crass gift, a sign that they wanted her forever chained to the kitchen cooking for them and cleaning up after them.
As she pricked the sausages and peeled the potatoes it became clear to her. They had done something for her for the very first time, not something she wanted, but something; and why? Because she had sulked. Ethel hadn't intended to sulk, but that's exactly what it had been. What other women had been doing for years. Women who had pouted and complained, and demanded to be appreciated. By refusing to begin the preparations for Christmas, she had drawn a response from them.
Now, what more could be done?
She turned on the crackling, snowy television and looked at it with interest. It was the beginning. She would have to go slowly, of course. A lifetime of being a drudge could not be turned around instantly. If, as a worm, she was seen to turn too much, it might be thought to be her nerves, her time of life, a case for nice chat with some kind, white-coated person prescribing tranquilizers. No instant withdrawal of serv