There was no return address on the envelope, which was a little weird. Already I was slightly uneasy. Even more so when I saw my name and address…
The sensible woman would not open this. The sensible woman would throw it in the bin and walk away. But apart from a short period between the ages of twenty-nine and thirty, when had I ever been sensible?
So I opened it.
It was a card, a watercolor of a bowl of droopy-looking flowers. And flimsy enough that I could feel something inside. Money? I thought. A check? But I was just being sarcastic, even though there was no one there to hear me, and anyway, I was only saying it in my own head.
And indeed, there was something inside: a photograph…Why was I being sent this? I already had loads…Then I saw that I was wrong. It wasn’t him at all. And suddenly I understood everything.
Mum flung open the sitting-room door and announced, “Morning, Anna, time for your tablets.”
She tried to march briskly, like nurses she’d seen on hospital dramas, but there was so much furniture in the room that instead she had to wrestle her way toward me.
When I’d arrived in Ireland eight weeks earlier, I couldn’t climb the stairs, because of my dislocated kneecap, so my parents had moved a bed downstairs into the Good Front Room.
Make no mistake, this was a huge honor: under normal circumstances we were only let into this room at Christmastime. The rest of the year, all familial leisure activities—television watching, chocolate eating, bickering—took place in the cramped converted garage, which went by the grand title of Television Room.
But when my bed was installed in the GFR there was nowhere for the other fixtures—tasseled couches, tasseled armchairs—to go. The room now looked like a discount furniture store, where millions of couches are squashed in together, so that you almost have to clamber over them like boulders along the seafront.
“Right, missy.” Mum consulted a sheet of paper, an hour-by-hour schedule of all my medication—antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, sleeping pills, high-impact vitamins, painkillers that induced a very pleasant floaty feeling, and a member of the Valium family, which she had ferried away to a secret location.
All the different packets and jars stood on a small, elaborately carved table—several china dogs of unparalleled hideousness had been shifted to make way for them and now sat on the floor looking reproachfully at me—and Mum began sorting through them, popping out capsules and shaking pills from bottles.
My bed had been thoughtfully placed in the window bay so that I could look out at passing life. Except that I couldn’t: there was a net curtain in place that was as immovable as a metal wall. Not physically immovable, you understand, but socially immovable: in Dublin suburbia brazenly lifting your nets to have a good look at “passing life” is a social gaffe akin to painting the front of your house Schiaparelli pink.
Besides, there was no passing life. Except…actually, through the gauzy barrier, I’d begun to notice that most days an elderly woman stopped to let her dog wee at our gatepost—sometimes I thought the dog, a cute black-and-white terrier, didn’t even want to wee, but it was looking as if the woman was insisting.
“Okay, missy.” Mum had never called me “missy” before all of this. “Take these.” She tipped a handful of pills into my mouth and passed me a glass of water. She was very kind really, even if I suspected she was just acting out a part.
“Dear Jesus,” a voice said. It was my sister Helen, home from a night’s work. She stood in the doorway of the sitting room, looked around at all the tassels, and asked, “How can you stand it?”
Helen is the youngest of the five of us and still lives in the parental home, even though she’s twenty-nine. But why would she move out, she often asks, when she’s got a rent-free gig, cable telly, and a built-in chauffeur (Dad). The food, of course, she admits, is a problem, but there are ways around everything.
“Hi, honey, you’re home,” Mum said. “How was work?”
After several career changes, Helen—and I’m not making this up, I wish I was—is a private investigator. Mind you, it sounds far more dangerous and exciting than it is; she mostly does white-collar crime and “domestics”—where she has to get proof of men having affairs. I would find it terribly depressing but she says it doesn’t bother her because she’s always known that men were total scumbags.
She spends a lot of time sitting in wet hedges with a long-range lens, trying to get photographic evidence of the adulterers leaving their love nest. She could stay in her nice, warm, dry car but then she tends to fall asleep and miss her mark.
“Mum, I’m very stressed,” she said, “Any chance of a Valium?”
“My throat is killing me. War-crime sore. I’m going to bed.”
Helen, on account of all the time she spends in damp hedges, gets a lot of sore throats.
“I’ll bring you up some ice cream in a minute, pet,” Mum said. “Tell me, I’m dying to know, did you get your mark?”
Mum loves Helen’s job, nearly more than she loves mine, and that’s saying a lot. (Apparently, I have the Best Job in the World™.) Occasionally, when Helen is very bored or scared, Mum even goes to work with her; the Case of the Missing Woman comes to mind. Helen had to go to the woman’s apartment, looking for clues (air tickets to Rio, etc. As if…) and Mum went along because she loves seeing inside other people’s houses. She says it’s amazing how dirty people’s homes are when they’re not expecting visitors. This gives her great relief, making it easier to live in her own less-than-pristine crib. However, because her life had begun to resemble, however briefly, a crime drama, Mum got carried away and tried to break down the locked apartment door by running at it with her shoulder—even though, and I can’t stress this enough, Helen had a key. And Mum knew she had it. It had been given to her by the missing woman’s sister and all Mum got for her trouble was a badly mashed shoulder.
“It’s not like on the telly,” she complained afterward, kneading the top of her arm.
Then, earlier this year, someone tried to kill Helen. The general consensus was not so much shock that such a dreadful thing would happen as amazement that it hadn’t come to pass much sooner. Of course, it wasn’t really an attempt on her life. Someone threw a stone through the television-room window during an episode of EastEnders—probably just one of the local teenagers expressing his feelings of youthful alienation, but the next thing Mum was on the phone to everyone, saying that someone was trying to “put the frighteners” on Helen, that they “wanted her off the case.” As “the case” was a small office fraud inquiry where an employer had Helen install a hidden camera to see if his employees were nicking printer cartridges, this seemed a little unlikely. But who was I to rain on their parade—and that’s what I would have been doing: they’re such drama queens they actually thought this was exciting. Except for Dad and only because he was the one who had to sweep up all the broken glass and sellotape a plastic bag over the hole until the glazier arrived, approximately six months later. (I suspect Mum and Helen live in a fantasy world where they think someone’s going to come along and turn their lives into a massively successful TV series. In which they will, it goes without saying, play themselves.)