By Neil Brosnan
Angela isn’t exactly sure when her loathing of public holidays first began, when each impending break from work had become a source of anguish rather than joy. She had once adored such breaks, and had perfected the art of manipulating isolated bank holidays into an extra week of annual leave – providing a more senior colleague hadn’t beaten her to the punch. She had never understood her co-workers’ obsession with sun holidays and foreign travel. To Angela, time off had mattered more than the time of year; time off had meant time at home: with her parents, her brother and sisters, her old school pals, in the place she still loves and had never wanted to leave.
Both her parents are long gone, and it’s almost eleven years since her brother lost his brave battle with cancer. Her estranged sister-in-law now rules the roost in the old family home – the house into which, as the eldest, Angela had felt duty-bound to plough every spare penny of her first decade’s earnings. Angela has seen her three sisters marry and bear children – the youngest, Martha, is granny to a pair of toddlers. It’s been over ten years since Angela last spent a night in any of her siblings’ homes; her only remaining family contact is with twice-divorced Martha, who frequently escapes the chaos of real life to spend a weekend with her in Dublin.
While Angela dreads all holidays, the ever-lengthening yuletide preamble sends a particularly cold shiver up her spine. She doesn’t need to be reminded of that first Christmas she’d had to stay in Dublin, without family, without presents, without God. That was when she’d had to part with her car, having failed a breathalyser test when driving home from the office party. Not that she misses the car: cars are only of use to those who have someplace to go. Nowadays, two buses get her to and from work and, whenever office protocol calls for an after-work drink, she takes a cab home.
Angela came home by cab yesterday, Sunday, after another wasted afternoon in the city centre. He had purported to be a widower, living alone since his youngest son had decamped to Australia. She’d had her suspicions even before his muted phone began to vibrate on the café table, just moments after he’d gone to the washroom. The sight of Home calling on the illuminated screen had brought little surprise and even less disappointment: Angela hadn’t spent the greater part of her adult life listening to tales of woe without learning to identify the tall from the true.
Though she does enjoy browsing the profiles of those who contact her online, she hasn’t uploaded her photo, nor has she disclosed her real name or occupation on her page. In truth, she is thankful to Martha for browbeating her into joining up. Angela now accepts that fifteen minutes spent surfing a dating site is more appealing than the thought of wasting another fifteen years trawling the hostelries of Temple Bar in the forlorn hope of unearthing an eligible bachelor. Martha, although living in the middle of nowhere, is having a cyber-dating ball; she says her only regret is not having signed up years sooner. But that’s Martha for you; Martha’s criteria are somewhat more fluid than Angela’s: Martha’s priority is the now, the Mr-right-now, while Angela still harbours hopes of meeting the Mr Right.
Angela describes herself as a single, mature, career lady – non-smoker, seldom drinker – with own home, who would like to meet a professional, or business type, with a view to friendship, beach walks, evenings out, and maybe more. During a recent stay Martha had quipped that Angela should consider approaches from married tradesmen – or even randy handymen – before her house falls down around her ears. What Martha doesn’t know, however, is that Angela is now active on three further sites – two of which she joined over Christmas, with details and aspirations similar to those of her first venture. She found a new site on St Patrick’s Day, a free site, where she is less specific about the occupations and locations of possible matches.
Studying her reflection in the overmantle mirror, Angela sees a face that would not look out of place at a parent/teacher meeting, ploughing match or ICA do. Though it could never have been described as beautiful, hers is an open face – uncomplicated, unpretentious. It’s the family face, her mother’s face, shared by all four sisters – despite Martha’s best efforts to disguise hers with an endless series of makeovers.
While Martha insists she and Angela are quite similar, Angela believes that any resemblance is merely skin-deep. Angela had never caused her parents a moment’s bother; Martha was smoking at twelve, drinking at fourteen, dropping out of school before her Junior Cert, and pregnant at sixteen. Even motherhood hadn’t deterred Martha from a series of dysfunctional relationships, including two disastrous marriages, leaving her with neither father nor guardian for any of her four children.
Angela opens her laptop but doesn’t power it up. Absently, she re-closes the lid, her attention now drawn to a movement on the sunlit ledge of her living room window. She paddles her office chair closer to watch an industrious spider secure thread after gossamer thread between the forked arms of a piece of weathered driftwood. Apparently oblivious to Angela’s presence, the little creature seems totally focused on spinning her intricate geometric pattern across the interior of her trap.
“I suppose I’m safer looking at this web than the world-wide one,” Angela sighs, but her ghost of a smile soon darkens to a scowl as her gaze wanders beyond the relentless march of black mold along the PVC window frame, to her peeling wallpaper and the foreboding expanse of cumulus on her once-white ceiling.
“Bloody bank holidays,” she hisses; “too much time to reminisce, to notice, to ponder.” But the obvious aren’t the only problems with Angela’s bungalow. What if she hadn’t paid for those improvements to her parents’ home? What if she’d begun saving on her own behalf in the eighties instead of the nineties? What if she’d bought this, or any house, before the property boom? Yes, she might have found a place she’d actually liked – a home she could have grown to love – and, she’d probably be mortgage-free by now. Instead, she had paid more than double what her two-bedroom money-pit is actually worth, and she had then been faced with the enormous task of finding people to carry out the repairs necessary to make the old building habitable.
Every phone call had yielded the same result: any builder worthy of the name was engaged on bigger projects, and those she had eventually found through leaflets and fliers – though exorbitant in the extreme – had proved nothing more than botch-jobbing fly-by-night cowboys. Even when reputable builders had again become available, tougher mortgage and insurance conditions, pension levies, service charges, property tax and universal social charges had left her disposable income far short of what she’d anticipated when pledging a quarter-century of repayments to a toxic cocktail of lending institutions.
“And thanks to Covid-19 and Brexit, it’ll happen all over again,” she groans. “I’m just a piece of driftwood, at the whim of every wave and wind.”
Her kettle has boiled; she doesn’t remember switching it on – she hadn’t even realised she was in the kitchen. She reaches for the coffee jar in the overhead cupboard. No; coffee is no good without a cigarette, and she hasn’t smoked for over a month, not since Martha’s last visit. She scalds the teapot but, deciding that a single mug is all she wants, returns it to the hob. She pours water on a teabag, swirls it a few times, squeezes it with a spoon, and then removes it before adding a splash of milk.
The spider has done a thorough job; she has already made a capture – not a fly, but one of those creepy leggy things that keep crawling out from beneath the warped MDF windowsill. The prey is much larger than the predator, which is now nowhere to be seen. The spider is hiding, waiting for her moment; she instinctively knows that size is no match for time. It takes Angela several moments to locate the little arachnid, quite motionless, inside the angle of the forked limb, almost indiscernible from the teeth marks that pepper the grey-brown surface of the wood.
As memory sweeps her back to the first time she’d seen the piece of driftwood – to another August bank holiday – a soft crinkle creeps from her lips to settle in the corners of her eyes. It was a glorious day and, despite following closely on Martha’s most recent break-up, has become one of those magical interludes which seem to survive the ravages of time. Mother was alive and well then, and had been delighted with Angela’s offer to take Martha and her brood to the seaside for the afternoon. After the compulsory dip in the ocean, everybody tucked into the goodies which Mother had prepared. A little later, while her younger siblings were engrossed with buckets and spades, Kirsty – Martha’s eldest, by four years – became mesmerised by the antics of an apparently ownerless spaniel dog. With metronomic regularity the drenched brown-and-white body splashed through the waves, ever eager to retrieve anything anybody was willing to throw.
Eventually running out of playmates, the dog made a bee-line towards Kirsty, dropped the piece of driftwood at the girl’s feet and, with an endearing combination of frisks, feints and whines, left the child in no doubt as to how she was expected to respond. The pair entertained each other for almost twenty minutes, until one of the bigger boys from the football game at the water’s edge reclaimed the panting animal and dragged him off towards the caravan park on the cliff.
Kirsty was first to nod off on the journey home; the throwing stick slipping from the lifeless fingers of her right hand. It was several weeks before Angela noticed the piece of driftwood, forgotten and obsolete, beneath the passenger seat of her car. Reminded of how spinster aunts can fade to mere curiosities just as quickly as adoring children mutate to obnoxious teenagers, Angela wonders if anybody has ever coined a collective, gender-neutral term for one’s siblings’ offspring. Sibspring would be her word, but she knows she will never muster the courage to use it.
The laptop is booting up; the little ice-cream-smudged faces of Kirsty’s daughter and son grin from the screen – from the colour, clamour and cheer of that selfsame beach. Logging on to her initial site, she flits through her messages. There is nothing unusual. When her next two searches yield similar results, she opens her fourth site – the one most recently joined. She has a new flirt; it’s from some guy called Ollie.
She accesses Ollie’s page. Glancing through the blurb beneath the vaguely familiar face, she gasps. She knows this guy; she has interviewed him – very recently – in her office. His file is currently in her pending basket… awaiting her decision on his claim. Yes, he is a handyman and, even if his site profile presents him as self-employed rather than unemployed, at least she knows that he hasn’t lied about being divorced
The idea wouldn’t have occurred to her ten years ago – or even five. Marching into her guestroom, she rummages through Martha’s emergency survival kit. Returning to her kitchen, she adds a dollop of cream to her coffee, lights one of Martha’s cigarettes, and responds to Ollie’s flirt.