A Time for Friends
“See you tonight,” Niall Hammond said, planting a kiss on his drowsy wife’s cheek.
“What time is it?” Hilary groaned, pulling the duvet over her shoulders and burying her head in the pillow.
“Six thirty-five,” he murmured and then he was gone, his footsteps fading on the stairs. She heard the sound of the alarm being turned off, heard the front door open, then close, and the sound of the car reversing out of the drive.
Hilary yawned and stretched and her eyes closed. I’ll just snooze for ten minutes, she promised herself, before drifting back to sleep.
“Mam, wake up, we’re going to be late for school.” Hilary opened her eyes to see Sophie, her youngest daughter, standing beside the bed poking her in the ribs.
“Oh crikey, what time is it?” She struggled into a sitting position.
“Eight twelve,” her daughter intoned solemnly, reading the digital clock.
“Holy Divinity, why didn’t you call me earlier? Where’s Millie? Is she up?” she asked, flinging back the duvet and scrambling out of bed.
“She’s not up yet.”
“Oh for God’s sake! Millie, Millie, get up.” Hilary raced into her eldest daughter’s bedroom and hauled the duvet off her sleeping form.
“Awww, Mam!” Millie yelled indignantly, curling up like a little hedgehog, spiky hair sticking up from her head.
“Get up, we’re late. Go and wash your face.” Hilary was like a whirling dervish, pulling open the blinds, before racing into the shower, jamming a shower cap onto her head so her hair wouldn’t get wet. Ten minutes later, wrapped in a towel, she was slathering butter
onto whole-grain bread slices onto which she laid cuts of breast from the remains of the chicken she’d cooked for the previous day’s dinner. An apple and a clementine in each lunch box and the school lunches were done. Hilary eyed the full wash load in the machine and wished she’d got up twenty minutes earlier so she could have hung it out on the line seeing as Niall hadn’t bothered.
She felt a flash of irritation at her husband. It wouldn’t dawn on him to hang out the clothes unless she had them in the wash basket on the kitchen table where he could see them. Sometimes she felt she was living with three children, she thought in exasperation. Typical that it was a fine day with a good breeze blowing and her clothes were stuck in the machine and would have to stay there until she got home.
Millie was shoveling Shreddies into her mouth while Sophie calmly sprinkled raisins into her porridge. Sophie was dressed in her school uniform, blond hair neatly plaited, and yet again Hilary marveled at the dissimilarity of her children. Millie, hair unbrushed, tie askew, lost in a world of her own, oblivious to Hilary’s hassled demeanor. At least they’d had showers, and hair washed after swimming yesterday, she thought, taking a brush from the drawer to put manners on her oldest daughter’s tresses.
Twenty minutes later Hilary watched the lollipop lady escort them across the road, and smiled as Sophie turned to give her a wave and a kiss. It was hard to believe she had two children of schoolgoing age. Where had the years gone? she wondered as she crawled along in the school-run traffic.
It shocked her sometimes that she was a wife and mother to two little girls and settled into the routine of family life that didn’t seem to vary much when the girls were at school. At least she’d spent a year au pairing in France after leaving school, and she’d spent six weeks on the Greek Islands with Colette O’Mahony, her oldest friend, having an absolute blast the following summer! That had been fun. Hilary grinned at the memory, turning onto the Malahide Road, and groaning at the traffic stuck on the Artane roundabout.
Colette would never in a million years be stuck in school-run traffic, she thought ruefully. Colette had a nanny to bring Jasmine to
school in London. No doubt her friend was sipping Earl Grey tea in bed, perusing the papers before going to have her nails manicured or going shopping in Knightsbridge. Their lives couldn’t be more different. But then, even from a very young age, they always had been.
Colette, the only daughter of two successful barristers, had had a privileged, affluent childhood. Her parents fulfilling her every wish, but handing her over to the care of a succession of housekeepers, as they devoted themselves to careers and a hectic social life, before packing Colette off to a posh and extremely expensive boarding school.
In contrast, Hilary’s mother, Sally, had been a stay-at-home mother, although she did work a few hours on Saturdays in the family lighting business. Hilary’s dad, Mick, owned a lighting store and electrical business and Hilary had worked there every summer holiday, either in the large showrooms, that stocked lights and lamps and shades of every description, or in the office working on invoices and orders and deliveries.
Her parents, unlike Colette’s, were extremely family orientated. Hilary and her older sister, Dee, had grown up secure in the knowledge that they were much loved. Sally and Mick enjoyed their two girls and had bought a secondhand caravan so they could all spend weekends and holidays together. Hilary’s abiding memory of her childhood was of her mother making scrumptious picnics in the little caravan kitchen, and her dad lugging chairs and windbreaks and cooler bags down to the beach and setting up their “spot.” And then the games of rounders, or O’Grady Says, with their parents and aunts, uncles, and cousins joining in, a whole tribe of Kinsellas, screeching and laughing. And then the sand-gritted picnic with tea out of flasks, or homemade lemonade, and more often than not, a gale whipping the sand outside their windbreak as clouds rolled in over the Irish Sea, the threat of rain somehow adding to the excitement. And when it did fall, all hands would gallop back up the bank to the caravans, and Mick would laugh and say, “That was a close one,” when they’d make it inside before the heavens opened.
Sally enjoyed the company of her girls and, when time and work
permitted, they would head over to Thomas Street, and ramble around the Liberty Market, browsing the stalls, especially the jewelry ones, oohing and aahing over rings and bracelets. Kind-hearted as ever, Sally would fork out a few quid for a gift for Hilary and Dee. Their mother had steered them through the ups and downs of their teen years and had urged her daughters to spread their wings and see the world and follow their dreams. She had been fully behind Hilary’s decision to go to France after her Leaving Cert and be an au pair and become fluent in French.
After her year of au pairing and her six weeks roaming the Greek Islands with Colette, Hilary had planned to do an arts degree with a view to teaching languages, but Mick had suffered a heart attack the August before she was to start university, and she had felt it incumbent on her to put aside her own plans for her future, especially as she’d been abroad for more than a year, enjoying the freedom to be carefree and unfettered. She had stepped up to the plate to help her parents in their hour of need. Her older sister, Dee, was in the middle of a science degree and there was no question of her dropping out of university.
Hilary was desperately disappointed at having to postpone her degree course; she had been so looking forward to going to university and enjoying the social side of life. Dee might study hard, but she partied hard too and lived on campus, free of all parental constraints.
Hilary had been looking forward to moving out of the family home. Having spread her wings in France, she was keen to have the freedom to live her own life but her father’s illness put paid to that. She buried her regrets deep and put her shoulder to the wheel to keep the showrooms ticking over, while Bill O’Callaghan, Mick’s senior electrician, looked after that side of the business.
Hilary had taken a bookkeeping and accounts course at night school soon after, and it was at a trad session one sweltering bank holiday weekend, in the college grounds, that she had met brown-eyed, bodhrán-playing Niall Hammond. She had tripped over someone’s handbag and tipped her Black Velvet Guinness drink down his back.
He’d given a yelp of dismay and jumped to his feet and then
started to laugh when he’d turned round and seen her standing, hand to her mouth in horror, her glass almost empty.
“I . . . I’m terribly sorry,” she stuttered, dabbing ineffectually at his shirt with a tissue while his friends guffawed.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said easily. “I was getting too hot anyway.” He pulled the soaking shirt over his head, exposing a tanned torso with just the right amount of dark chest hair to make her think: Sexy!
Students were in various states of undress because of the sultry heat, so being shirtless wasn’t a big deal, she thought with relief, trying not to gaze at her victim’s impressive pecs while he wrung out his shirt and slung it over his shoulder.
“You are such a clutterbuck, Hilary.” Colette materialized behind her and gave a light-hearted giggle. She rolled her eyes heavenwards and held out her dainty hand to the hunk in front of them. “Hi, I’m Colette O’Mahony, and this”—she made a little moue—“is Hilary Kinsella, who has two left feet as you’ve just found out.”
“Well, hi there, ladies. Niall Hammond is my moniker and I guess we should have a round of fresh drinks to get us back on track.” He waved politely at a waitress and she nodded and headed in their direction. “Guinness for you, Hilary? Did you have anything in it?”
“Um . . . it was a Black Velvet,” Hilary managed, mortified, and raging with Colette for saying she had two left feet. Her friend could be so artless sometimes.
“Brandy and ginger,” Colette purred gaily, fluttering her eyelashes at him.
Hilary saw Niall’s eyes widen slightly. Typical of Colette to go for an expensive short when someone else was paying.
“Er . . . mine’s with cider, not champagne,” she added hastily in case he thought they were way OTT.
Niall winked at her and gave the order and added, “A pint of Harp for me, please. So, ladies, are you students here?” he asked, smiling down at Colette. Hilary’s heart sank. It was always the way. Once men saw blond, petite, dainty, effervescent Colette, she was forgotten about.
“Hilary is. She’s doing a boring bookkeeping course; I’m just here for the craic! I’m studying Fine Arts in London. I’m home for the weekend.”
“Interesting! Fine Arts. How did that come about?” Niall leaned against a pillar, thumbs hooking into his jeans, and Hilary thought how typical of her luck to encounter a hunky guy when Colette was home from London on one of her rare jaunts across the Irish Sea. Since she had moved to London to live with her father’s widowed sister, her friend rarely came home, and wasn’t great at keeping in touch either. She was having a ball going to polo matches, and weekend parties in the country, and drinking in glamorous pubs in Kensington and Knightsbridge and shopping in Harvey Nicks and Harrods.
“My parents wanted me to study law. They’re both barristers,” Colette added, always keen to slip that bit of information into any conversation. “I couldn’t bear the idea,” she trilled, throwing back her head so that her blond hair fell in a tumbling mane over her shoulders, and giving a gay laugh. “My dad’s sister has a big flat in Holland Park, and her husband died and they have no children so I went to stay with her for a while and she knew someone in Dickon and Austen’s Fine Art and I worked there and did my degree and that’s where I’ve fetched up.”
Fetched up, thought Hilary irritably. Colette was becoming more English than the English themselves.
“And yourself?” Niall’s heavy-lidded brown eyes were focused on Hilary. But there was a twinkle in them that she liked and she found herself responding with an answering smile.
“I work in my dad’s lighting and electrical business—”
“She’s a shop manager,” interjected Colette brightly. “Oh look, here’s our drinks.”
“Let me pay,” Hilary urged. “After all I’ve ruined your shirt.”
“Another time,” Niall said firmly, taking his wallet out of the back pocket of his jeans and extracting a twenty.
“And what do you do apart from playing the bodhrán fabulously?” Colette arched a perfectly manicured, wing-tipped eyebrow at him, before taking a ladylike sip of her brandy and ginger.
“I work in Aer Rianta International, in travel retail. And in my spare time I play gigs with these hoodlums.” He indicated his three band buddies in the background.
“Really? An interesting job, I’d say?” Colette was impressed. “Do you travel much?”
“I do indeed.”
“I love to travel,” Colette commented gaily.
“What’s your band called?” Hilary interjected, knowing that unless she steered her offtrack, Colette would launch into a description of her travels and Hilary would end up feeling like a real gooseberry. She was beginning to feel like one already!
“We’re called Solas, which I’m sure you know is the Gaelic for ‘light.’ Somewhat of a synchronicity, Hilary, wouldn’t you think? Both of us work with light!”
“Umm.” Hilary was caught midgulp of her Black Velvet and was afraid she had a creamy mustache. “I guess so.”
“Well, I should get back and play another set, or Solas won’t get paid tonight. It was nice meeting you both.”
“Are you playing anywhere else over the weekend?” Colette asked casually.
“We are. Are you into trad? I wouldn’t have thought that would be your scene,” Niall remarked.
“Oh I LOVE it,” Colette fibbed. “I adore The Dubliners and . . . er . . . um . . . eh . . .The Clancy Brothers.”
“And yourself, Hilary?” Niall turned to look at her.
“I like trad.” She nodded. “I like the liveliness of it, the buzz of a good session.”
“And who do you like?” he probed.
“I like The Bothy Band, Planxty, De Dannan, and The Chieftains are amazing.” She shrugged.
“A woman after my own heart. They’re all unbelievable musicians, aren’t they?” he said enthusiastically.
“The best,” Hilary agreed.
“So where are you playing tomorrow?” Colette persisted, annoyed that she hadn’t thought of naming any of those bands, although she
only vaguely knew of them. She was more into The Rolling Stones and The Eagles.
“O’Donohue’s. Why, are you going to come?”
“Well, who knows?” Colette flashed her baby blues at him. “But if you don’t see me there you can always ring Dickon and Austen’s and catch me there. Thanks for the drink,” she drawled before sauntering back to where they had been sitting.
“Do you think they would take a collect call?” Niall grinned and Hilary laughed.
“Not sure about that.”
“So will you both be coming to O’Donohue’s tomorrow night?” he queried.
“Not sure about that either. We’re doing a big stock take in the shop, and I have to be there. And it’s much easier to get it done after closing time.”
“Sure, if I see you I see you,” he said easily. “Enjoy the rest of the evening.”
“You too and sorry about your shirt and thanks for the drink,” she murmured, heart sinking when she saw him glance over to where Colette was now chatting animatedly to a tall bearded guy, looking like a dainty little doll beside him.
“Another brandy and ginger coming up soon, I’d say,” Niall said wryly, amusement causing his eyes to crinkle in a most attractive way.
“What?” She was caught off guard.
“Your little friend has expensive tastes.”
“Er . . . she doesn’t like beer, or Guinness,” Hilary said loyally, taken aback by his directness.
“She’s lucky to have you for a friend; you have a very steadfast quality, Hilary. Would you come out for a drink with me sometime, when your stock taking is over?”
“Me! . . . Oh! . . . I thought it would be Colette you would ask out if you were asking either of us,” Hilary blurted.
“Did you now? Well, ladies who pour their Black Velvets all over me to get my attention are much more interesting than flirty brandy and ginger drinkers.”
“I didn’t pour my drink over you to get your attention. It was an accident. I tripped!” Hilary protested indignantly.
“Well, it worked, didn’t it? I’m asking you out for a drink,” he pointed out.
“Is that right?” Hilary said hotly. “How very arrogant that you would think I’d want to go for a drink with you. I’m not that desperate to get a man that I’d waste a Black Velvet on him.”
Niall guffawed. “Sorry, Hilary, I couldn’t resist it. Just wanted to see if you’d rise to the bait. I was only teasing, honest. I know you tripped. Come on, give me your number and let me make amends,” he smiled.
“You’ll get me at Kinsella Illuminations, Kirwan’s Industrial Estate; it’s in the phone book. Don’t call collect,” Hilary retorted, but she was smiling as she made her way back to the table.
Colette and Beardy were at the bar, Colette making sure she was posed just where Niall could see her as he rapped out a toe-tapping tattoo on his bodhrán. She could pose all she liked, Hilary smiled to herself. For once in her life, her friend had come in second. Niall Hammond had asked Hilary out for a drink, and out for a drink she would go.
“He asked you out?” Colette couldn’t believe her ears later that night as they tucked into a kebab on the way home. Colette was staying the night at Hilary’s, before heading back to her parents’ detached, palatial pad in Sutton the following morning.
“Yeah, I told him we were stock taking tomorrow and I wouldn’t be in O’Donohue’s, so he’s asked me out. He’s going to ring me.” Hilary licked the creamy sauce off her fingers and took a slug of Coke to wash it down.
“Ah ha! It will be interesting to see if he rings. You know what they’re like,” Colette said dismissively. “How many times have you sat waiting for a phone call from some bloke? Don’t hold your breath, now,” she advised, nibbling neatly on a portion of their shared kebab. She never dribbled sauce or got it on her fingers. Hilary would have had no problem polishing off a whole kebab and she was always irritated that Colette would refuse to have one, and then tuck into hers.
“You make it sound as though I’m permanently sitting by the phone waiting for a fella to ring,” Hilary said crossly, coming down from her high. Perhaps Colette was right: Niall might not bother to ring her. She had waited on a few occasions for a guy to ring after he had taken her number, and had waited in vain. Colette rarely had such problems. Men were drawn to her like bees to honey. And just this once, Hilary had thought she might be the one to get the boy! Now she was beginning to have serious doubts.
“I’m just not wanting you to get hurt, that’s all,” Colette said kindly. “Men can be the pits. Remember what I went through with Rod Killeen?” Her pretty face darkened into a thunderous scowl at the memory of the rat Killeen, who had dumped her for a tubby little tart with a raucous laugh and a penchant for sci-fi that Rod was into as well. “That guy broke my heart in smithereens,” Colette reminded Hilary. “Used and abused me! And behind my back was having it off with lardy Lynda. Little fat slut!”
Hilary sighed as Colette went into her usual rant about her ex-boyfriend. Colette had fallen hard for the good-looking, laid-back rugby player who was in his fourth year of medical school. Hilary had been dragged to rugby matches, in howling gales and on rain-spattered afternoons, for the duration of the short-lived romance. Rod had initially been very taken with his “little blond bombshell” as he’d nicknamed a delighted Colette and they had enjoyed a lusty couple of months in the early stages of their romance. But Colette’s demanding ways had proved too much for the muscular medic and he had wilted under her need for constant emotional reassurance, and the tantrums and traumas that ensued when he had had to knuckle down to study for his exams. Rod had taken comfort in the arms of a cuddly, good-humored student nurse from Cavan who couldn’t have been more different from Colette in personality and appearance. The fact that Lynda was a stone overweight seemed to incense Colette more than anything. How could Rod find that fatso more attractive than her? she raged to Hilary, completely oblivious to the fact that because Hilary herself carried a few extra pounds she too could be considered a fatso, in Colette’s eyes.
Personally Hilary could see why Rod would like Lynda’s curves, as well as the rest of her. Hilary had bumped into them one night in O’Donohue’s after Colette had taken flight to London, and Rod had introduced her to Lynda. She was a down-to-earth, warm, friendly type with sparkling green eyes, and a mop of auburn curls that cascaded onto smooth creamy shoulders, and a full and ripe bosom, and was far from the “carrot-haired, fat bogger” Colette had so disparagingly described. Natural and voluptuous, Lynda certainly did not share Colette’s clothes-hanger sophistication.
Rod’s rejection of Colette had been too devastating to bear and, when her mother had suggested that she go to London to get over her broken heart, Colette had agreed.
An angry honking of a car’s horn at the Artane roundabout brought Hilary back to earth and real life. Thank God it wasn’t directed at her, she thought guiltily. She had been driving on autopilot, her thoughts way back, what was it, ten or more years since the days of their giddy early twenties? And now both of them were married, she to Niall, who had indeed phoned her to arrange a date, and Colette to Des, a London-based financier, whom she had married in a fairy-tale wedding in Rome.
Both of them married, both of them mothers, she to Sophie and Millie, Colette to Jasmine. And both of them with very, very different lives, Hilary reflected as she stop-started her way to work. Colette was such a complex character, it was a wonder their friendship had lasted as long as it had. She was one of the most competitive people Hilary knew. She had to be the center of attention. Had to have a bigger car, better job, sexier boyfriend than any of their circle of friends. But Hilary knew that behind the confident, smug, superior façade lay a young woman who was plagued by insecurity. Hilary was one of the few who knew the real Colette. The Colette who was generous to a fault, the Colette who would cry buckets because of a broken heart, the Colette who had longed to be “ordinary,” just like Hilary and her sister, Dee, and have a mother who was waiting at home when she came in from school, who would be interested in hearing about
her day, and who would have a yummy dinner waiting for her. Even though her friend could drive her mad with her selfish, thoughtless behavior, Hilary could never stay annoyed with her for long, because she was a big softie and she knew Colette’s vulnerabilities and she knew that Colette thought of her as the sister she’d never had.
Colette wouldn’t be stuck in traffic, doing the school run and the bumper-to-bumper commute to work though. Hilary couldn’t help the pang of envy, knowing that her friend had a nanny and housekeeper in her luxurious London flat. She wouldn’t come home to breakfast dishes on the draining board and a hastily swept kitchen, or a mountain of clothes in the linen basket that had to be washed, ironed, and put away, like Hilary would. Their lives had always been dissimilar, even when they were little girls, but their friendship, imperfect as it was, had lasted this long. That in itself was an achievement, Hilary thought, amused, remembering some of their humdinger rows as she swung into the car park of Kinsella Illuminations, the showrooms of the family’s lighting and electrical business.