Love and Marriage CHAPTER ONE
‘Oh God, my head!’ Debbie groaned as sunlight spilled through the curtains, causing her to wince and close her eyes rapidly. She was parched, her mouth sawdust-dry.
‘I’m dying!’ Carina moaned from the other side of the bed, burying her head under the pillow.
‘What time is it?’ Debbie struggled into a sitting position and tried to focus on her watch. ‘Oh crap, it’s after eleven. I’m meeting my mother for lunch – I’ll have to go home and get changed.’
‘Don’t bother going home, hon, have a root in the wardrobe and grab something to wear. There’re plenty of clean knickers in the bottom drawer.’ Carina yawned and ran her fingers through the tawny mane that tumbled down in disarray over her shoulders.
‘How come you look like a sex goddess and I look like a scarecrow?’ Debbie demanded, catching sight of herself in the mirror. Her auburn hair stood up on end, and her mascara was smeared across the top of her cheeks.
‘Sex goddess!’ snorted Carina. ‘You’re still pissed.’
‘I smell like a brewery. Never ever again!’ Debbie grabbed a bottle of water from beside the bed, unscrewed the top and drank thirstily.
‘Good night, though, wasn’t it?’ grinned her friend as she lay back against the pillows and closed her eyes against the unforgiving light.
‘Yeah. I haven’t been to Copper Face Jacks in years.’
‘And you a married woman,’ teased Carina.
‘Don’t remind me,’ Debbie said dryly.
‘Ah, you’re entitled to a breakout now and again.’ Carina broke a couple of squares of chocolate from a Cadbury’s bar on her bedside locker and handed it across to Debbie. ‘Have some breakfast.’
‘Thanks.’ Debbie’s recovery began as she munched on the welcome treat. ‘I might be heading towards being an alcoholic, but you’re definitely a chocaholic.’
‘I know. I have to stop, it’s worse than smoking.’ Carina licked her fingers. ‘Do you want a grilled-rasher sanger?’
‘Just one rasher and one slice of bread, to line my stomach so I don’t barf on the Dart.’ Debbie grimaced.
‘You’re so lucky you get on with your mother. If I was meeting mine for lunch, I can guarantee that we’d be fighting in ten minutes,’ Carina remarked twenty minutes later, as Debbie, showered and wrapped in a towelling robe, buttered the bread for their sandwiches. The bacon was sizzling on the grill, coffee was brewing in the pot and both of them were beginning to feel human again. Most of the gang from their department had gone for a meal in Yamamori Noodles before moving on to Dakota for cocktails and then ending up in Copper Face Jacks, a well-known haunt for guards and detectives. She’d sent Bryan a text to say she was going out with the girls, and he’d sent one back to say he was with the guys from work, drowning their sorrows because there was bad news on the job front. She hadn’t responded. She didn’t want to know.
Debbie had embraced the evening’s fun wholeheartedly, too wholeheartedly. She hadn’t been so drunk in years. Around eleven, she’d sent Bryan another text to say she was spending the night at Carina’s and then she’d turned off the phone. She didn’t feel one iota of guilt. Bryan had pulled the same type of stunt on her over the years. It was her turn and, besides, it might be her last night of fun if her husband’s text was anything to go by. That thought had spurred her on to down one vodka and Red Bull too many, and she’d spent the night flirting giddily with a detective from Galway until Carina had dragged her home, protesting, in the early hours of Saturday morning. She didn’t remember undressing and falling into Carina’s comfy double bed, where she’d slept her brains out alongside her friend.
Sitting in the kitchen, sipping scalding-hot sweet coffee and eating the crispy-bacon sandwich, she chided herself for behaving like a single nineteen-year-old and not a newly married woman in her mid-twenties who was up to her eyes in debt.
‘You’re so lucky to have a husband to go home to.’ Carina wiped some tomato ketchup off her finger. ‘I’d love to have someone who loves me, to share the rest of the weekend with, and someone to shag me senseless to boot.’
Me too, Debbie thought, but she said brightly, ‘That Special Branch detective was very into you.’
‘That Special Branch detective was very married. He had a red rash on his ring finger – you know, the rash you get from your rings sometimes.’ Carina cut a slice of Maltana and offered it to Debbie, who shook her head.
‘Oh! Well spotted. What a bummer.’
‘I’ve been on the scene long enough to know the score.’ Carina scowled.
‘So that was why you bundled me into a taxi when I was starting to have fun,’ Debbie retorted.
‘Too much fun, for a very married woman.’ Carina wagged her finger in jest.
‘Sorry, I was pissed,’ Debbie muttered. ‘I haven’t drunk like that in a long time.’ The truth was, she’d enjoyed flirting with the Galway detective and hadn’t objected when he’d leaned in and nuzzled her ear before giving her a long, lingering kiss. It was soon after that little interlude that Carina had stepped in and said they were leaving.
‘No harm done.’ Carina smiled at her. ‘I won’t be bringing you to AA just yet.’
‘You’re a great friend, Carina.’ Debbie hugged her tightly. ‘I enjoyed my mad night out, but I don’t think I’ll be having another one for a while to come. I think bad stuff is coming down the line about Bryan’s job. I couldn’t even afford to go out last night, to be honest. It was like a last fling before tightening the purse strings.’
‘Ouch! That’s tough. I know so many couples in the same boat. I guess I’m lucky I’m renting and don’t have a mortgage. I was able to negotiate a rent reduction with my landlord. It’s a renters’ market at the moment.’
‘Good for you. I think we’re going to lose the house,’ Debbie heard herself say, finally admitting her greatest fear was more than a possibility.
‘That bad?’ Carina was shocked.
‘I’m trying not to think about it,’ Debbie confessed. ‘Don’t say anything to any of the others. I haven’t said anything to anyone, not even my mother.’
‘Of course I won’t. But look, it might not happen. Maybe you could renegotiate your mortgage. The friggin’ banks owe it to us to lighten the load; we’re bailing them out, for God’s sake. It’s all their fault, them and that friggin’ muppet who was taking digouts from his cronies, them who wouldn’t listen to the advice they were being given about the property bubble. Every Tom, Dick and Harry could see the bust coming, and those idiots who “run the country” couldn’t?’
Carina’s voice rose an octave she was so indignant. Her pay cuts had meant that she wouldn’t be changing her car as she’d planned, and the one she had was on its last legs and was more trouble than it was worth. ‘I feel really pissed off because I didn’t vote for that shower in government. I never have, and I blame the people who kept voting them in, time after time,’ she ranted, as she began filling the dishwasher. Her brother, an architect, had lost his job in the recession and been forced to emigrate, leaving Carina to keep an eye on their mother, who was a demanding woman at the best of times. And now she didn’t have her sibling to share the burden with.
‘I’d better get dressed and head off to get a Dart.’ Debbie changed the subject. She felt too fragile to get into a discussion about the economy with Carina. Her friend was very into politics and extremely opinionated, but there was a time and a place for political argument, and this morning was not it.
‘Help yourself to whatever you want. There’re clean jeans and T-shirts in the wardrobe,’ her friend offered generously.
‘Perfect. You’re a pal.’ Debbie poured herself another cup of coffee and took it with her. She and Carina were of similar build, so she selected a pair of stonewashed jeans and a black T-shirt and dressed with haste, knowing that she had to catch a bus from Glasnevin to get into town to catch a Dart.
There was more than a hint of autumn in the air as she walked past the high, grey stone walls of the Botanic Gardens and felt a falling leaf brush her cheek. It was cold in the shade, and she crossed the street, hurrying past the Addison towards the bank on Mobhi Road. She’d spent a fortune last night and needed to withdraw funds from her current account.
She keyed in her PIN and her heart dropped like a stone when she saw the balance. She selected the €20 key. In the not too distant past she would have withdrawn a minimum of fifty without it costing her a thought. The repercussions of her night out would last until next payday, she thought gloomily. She saw a 19A bus heading for the lights, shoved her money in her purse and ran to the bus stop, trying to ignore the daggers of pain that pierced her temples. Paying in more ways than one, she thought, handing over her fare and lurching down the aisle to sink into an empty seat. She turned on her phone in case Connie was trying to get through to her and wondered would Bryan have sent her a text. Nothing, she noted flatly. It obviously hadn’t bothered him that she hadn’t come home. He’d probably gone partying with Kevin Devlin and that crowd and, if that was the case, he’d have spent a hell of a lot more than she had. She winced as the bus juddered to a halt at the next stop.
It was such an irony that she, who should be bubbly and happy, was going to meet her mother, who was bubbly and happy, and she was going to have to put on a façade to hide her general dreariness.
She clattered up the steps into Connolly twenty minutes later and raced across the concourse; there was a southbound Dart due in two minutes, and if she hurried she might make it. Crowds coming off a Maynooth train hampered her progress and she weaved in and out of the throng, cursing herself for drinking like a fish the previous night.
An elderly man going crablike down the stairs to the platform she was heading for brought a halt to her gallop, and she could hear the train trundling into the station and hoped there was a large crowd getting off as well as getting on. She was panting when she eventually leapt on to the train, just before the doors closed, and for one awful moment she felt bile rise in her throat and thought she was going to puke. She should have taken her time and not run like a maniac with the hangover she had. There was just something about making a train by the skin of your teeth. She hated coming into a station and seeing the last carriage of a train disappearing down the tracks.
She took some deep breaths, vowing never to drink again, and managed to locate a seat. A young Chinese man opposite was listening to his iPod and a teenager by the window was yakking away on his mobile. They took no notice of her taking deep breaths, willing her stomach to settle. If she didn’t feel better she could always get off at Tara Street, which was just moments away, she comforted herself as they crossed Butt Bridge. The Liffey was glinting silver and gold in the midday sun and she could see Bryan’s office building gleaming green and chrome in the sunlight. What was he going to tell her about work? Debbie wondered despairingly. They were in trouble, she knew it, and it frightened her. She wanted to lay her head on Connie’s shoulder and pour out all her woes to her mother. But how mean would that be? Her mother had sounded on such a high the previous day. She hoped this Drew guy was a good bloke. Her mum deserved the best. And she would let him know that too, whenever she met him. Debbie started to relax as they glided into Tara Street and she felt the nausea ease, relieved that she wouldn’t have to get off.
The teenager got off at Sydney Parade, and Debbie moved over to the window seat. She loved it when the train emerged from between the houses and ran beside the beach. The panorama of Dublin Bay spread out like a picture postcard for her delectation, and she could see the sun shining down on Dun Laoghaire a few miles away in the curve of the coastline. It was a very picturesque journey for the commuter, and such a pleasure compared to sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was one of those glorious early-autumn days, the light was less intense, opalescent almost, and Debbie realized with a start that September was almost upon them. She must text Melissa and wish her good luck in her new school term, she thought fondly, so glad of the growing closeness between her half-sister and herself.
What a year it had been, she reflected, as the sun warmed her face and the train curved along the track and increased speed. This time last year she’d been adamant that Barry would not be giving her away at her wedding and that Aimee and Melissa were definitely not welcome. The rapprochement with her father and half-sister was a very welcome outcome to what had been a very fraught lead-up to her wedding. It didn’t particularly bother her that she and Aimee didn’t get on. Her father’s workaholic second wife was the least of her troubles, she mused, remembering a few of their frosty encounters. How Barry could have walked out on Connie and married someone like Aimee, who was so hard and ambitious, and the complete opposite of her mother, mystified Debbie. Even though it had happened years ago, it had taken a long time for the bitterness Debbie felt at his departure from their lives to heal. Had Barry felt as trapped as her own husband did now? she wondered. Would she and Bryan make it as a married couple if they were having such problems so soon into their marriage? Because her new husband did feel trapped, there was no denying it. Maybe her mother had been right all along, maybe they should have postponed the wedding and just continued living together. But she had given him a chance to bail out, Debbie argued silently as the train approached Dalkey. It wasn’t fair for him to blame her and accept no responsibility for his decision to go ahead.
She wished she could talk to Jenna, her cousin and best friend. Jenna had been her bridesmaid and was like the sister she never had. But her cousin was working with a charity to help orphaned children in Bangkok and wouldn’t be home until Christmas. Debbie didn’t want to email. It was too impersonal, and she didn’t want Jenna worrying about her, when she herself was so far from home.
Connie was waiting for her on the opposite platform, and Debbie caught sight of her as the train cruised into the station. Her mother was glowing, there was no other word to describe it, Debbie thought enviously. She was looking a million dollars in her white cut-offs and black vest top. A lilac sweater was draped across her shoulders and she looked happy and carefree with the breeze blowing her auburn hair off her face. Debbie had never seen her mother look so well, and she hurried across the pedestrian bridge and flung her arms around her, hugging her tightly.
‘My God, Mum, you look fantastic!’ she exclaimed as Connie’s arms tightened around her. ‘You are sleeping with him,’ she declared, gazing into Connie’s clear blue eyes.
Her mother blushed and laughed. ‘Stop it, you brat. Don’t be mortifying me.’
‘I’m dying to hear all about it. Come on, let’s go to Idle Wilde. You’ve got to tell me everything,’ she urged, linking her arm with Connie’s and putting her woes aside for the time being. ‘Mum, you’re glowing. What’s going on? Tell me all,’ she demanded ten minutes later as they sat ensconced in the popular eatery. The café was buzzing with lunchtime trade – even the courtyard was full – and they were lucky to get a table.
‘Why don’t we order first, and then we can settle down to talk?’ Connie suggested, rooting in her bag for her glasses. ‘It’s such a bloody nuisance having to wear these things. I can’t read small print now,’ she moaned.
‘Why don’t you get laser treatment?’ Debbie giggled as Connie perched the glasses on her nose. ‘You look like a lawyer. They’re very cool.’
‘Thanks. I asked about the laser thing, but the optician said you can’t do anything about it, it’s an “age” thing. I hate being middle-aged, Debbie. Enjoy every second of your youth.’ Her mother eyed her over the top of her new specs. ‘You look a bit ropy,’ she remarked. ‘Late night?’
‘Girls’ night,’ Debbie murmured, glancing at the menu. She wasn’t that hungry.
‘Aahh!’ Connie smiled. ‘Sometimes they’re the worst. How’s Bryan?’
‘Great, in good form,’ Debbie fibbed brightly. Under no circumstances was she going to let on that her life with Bryan was less than perfect, not today anyway. It would be so unfair to ruin Connie’s day by selfishly unburdening herself.
‘Well, I was hoping the two of you could come to lunch some Sunday soon and meet my . . . my friend.’
‘Don’t you mean your lover?’ Debbie teased, noting Connie’s heightened colour.
‘Will you stop it?’ Connie hissed, abashed.
‘Only kidding. Is he, though?’
‘Yes, we’ve slept together,’ Connie admitted, putting down the menu, her mouth curving up in a smile.
‘It’s great, Mum. I’m delighted for you. It’s about time you had someone special in your life. What’s he like?’ Debbie stretched her hand across the table and gave Connie’s a squeeze.
‘He’s gorgeous.’ Connie sighed happily. ‘He’s just a bit older than me. He owns a riding stables about five miles away, he’s divorced, has two grown-up daughters, and we get on like a house on fire. He makes me laugh a lot, we can talk about anything and I fancy him like mad. That’s it, in a nutshell.’
‘What does he look like?’ Debbie felt an unwelcome twinge of envy. It was so ironic: her mother was behaving like a love-struck teenager, and she felt weary and disillusioned.
‘He’s tall, over six foot, grey hair cut tight, real blue eyes, fit and rangy, and a strong face, great mouth . . .’ Connie tailed off, embarrassed.
Debbie laughed. ‘Who’d play him?’
Connie cocked her head to the side and stared dreamily into space as she thought for a moment. ‘A mixture of Gary Cooper, and McSteamy in Grey’s Anatomy,’ she decided, grinning.
‘Yum! I likeee,’ Debbie approved.
‘I likeee too,’ laughed Connie. ‘I can’t believe I met someone at my age.’
‘You look so happy, Mum. It suits you being with him. When did you meet him? Do you think it’s more than a . . .’ She had been going to say ‘fling’ but thought it wasn’t appropriate ‘. . . an interlude?’
‘I think he’s someone I could be with for the rest of my life,’ Connie said quietly.
‘Oh wow!’ Debbie was taken aback. ‘Do you mean marriage?’
‘I don’t know if I necessarily want to get married again. Why would I? I did it once, and that was enough for me.’ Connie shook her head. ‘But I could see myself growing old with Drew, and having a hell of a good time doing it.’ She smiled. ‘Do you mind? I figured that, with you being married and having your own life to lead with Bryan, it wouldn’t impact on you as much as it would have if you were younger and still living with me.’
‘Of course I don’t mind, Mum. Drew . . . nice name.’ Debbie took a sip of the sparkling water they’d ordered.
‘Drew Sullivan. It suits him. I have a photo on my phone. Would you like to see it?’ Connie scrolled down on her mobile and handed it to Debbie.
Debbie studied the image of the handsome man looking out from the screen. What a strong face, she thought. A face full of character, the hint of a smile softening the stern aura. Not the face of a man who would walk away, she felt, unable to stop herself from making a comparison with her dad.
‘He’s a hunk, Mum, and he’s got kind eyes. Well done. Tell me all about him,’ she approved, handing back the phone. ‘Does Dad know about him?’
‘He met him,’ Connie said lightly, slipping the phone back into her bag.
‘Really! What did he say?’ Debbie couldn’t hide her curiosity, and her mother laughed.
‘Well, it was just a brief encounter, so to speak, and they shook hands and were polite when I made the introduction. I don’t particularly care what Barry thinks, to be honest. He made a new life for himself long ago. It’s my time now. I’m as free as a bird, answerable to no one. It’s a great feeling, love. I’m really enjoying my life at the moment. Let’s order, and I’ll tell you from the beginning.’ Connie sat back in her chair and smiled broadly.
Debbie sat looking at her mother, so happy, in love, completely carefree, and thought how incongruous it was that she, the newly-wed, was bowed down by pressure, financial and emotional, and by no stretch of the imagination could be considered happy, carefree or, most upsetting of all, in love. She swallowed down her despondency and listened as Connie told her how she’d met her tall, handsome man in Mrs Mansfield’s kitchen.
Bryan let himself into the house and cocked his ear to see if he could hear any sounds to indicate that Debbie was home before him. The house had a dreary, silent air, and walking into the kitchen he could see the mugs in the sink from the previous morning’s breakfast and knew that his wife wasn’t there. Debbie hated mugs left in the sink.
He’d tried to get hammered the previous night, but for some reason he just hadn’t been able to get drunk with the crowd from work. He felt too oppressed, too trapped to get into the zone. He’d been walking across the quays to Tara Street to get the Dart home when he’d bumped into his older brother and sister-in-law, who were heading for the northbound platform. He’d ended up going back with them to their neat bungalow in Killester, where they’d ordered a Chinese and opened a couple of bottles of beer. When he told them that Debbie was on a girls’ night out, they’d insisted he stay the night. Falling into the double bed in the very Zen, eggshell-blue and cream guest room was a much more inviting prospect than getting a taxi to an empty house where an unmade bed awaited.
That morning, they’d all had a leisurely breakfast and read the papers in a small coffee shop five minutes away. As he’d sat in the Nuthouse, eating poached eggs and drinking hot, sweet coffee, watching his brother and sister-in-law sharing the weekend supplements and ordering more coffee, the hum of chat in the background, he knew this was the kind of domesticity Debbie craved, and he knew in equal measure that it was far, far from what he wanted. He’d sat on the Dart home and felt rage and bitterness as the train swayed across Butt Bridge. He’d looked up the quays and seen the office he was currently designing the fit-out for, and wondered how he could ever have got himself so trapped. The nearer he got to home, the worse he’d felt.
He filled the kettle and the tentacles of desperation and frustration that were tightening their grip around him squeezed tighter and tighter until he felt he was going to suffocate.
This was not how it was meant to be. He wasn’t even thirty and he felt his life was over. And it was only going to get worse. He couldn’t hack it any more. He felt as if he was swimming underwater against the tide. He took his coffee out to their small deck. The sun was just coming around the back of the house, and he lifted his face to it, ignoring the grass that needed a cut and the weeds that were like a miniature jungle around the tool shed. He could hear the drone of a lawnmower in the distance and the irritating zizzzzz of a hedge trimmer. Children in a nearby garden squealed as they jumped on a trampoline, and an alarm shrieked incessantly from a house at the rear of them. It was an alarm that went off frequently, in a house that was rented, and it would ring for hours on end, shrill and insistent, driving the neighbours mad. The owner couldn’t care less. He didn’t live in the area and so, with irritating regularity, it would go off, its shrill racket jangling Bryan’s increasingly taut nerves. Today it was the last straw. God, it was so bloody noisy, and so bloody middle class, and so bloody boring! He had a sudden memory of himself around the age of six, out in the back garden playing. It was warm and sunny, there was the sound of lawnmowers whining in other gardens and the smell of cut grass permeated the air. His father, having cut their grass, was slumped, snoring, in a deck chair, with his mouth open, a half-finished mug of cold coffee beside him. A fly had landed on his nose. Bryan had watched, fascinated, wondering would the fly go into his dad’s mouth and would he choke.
He was turning into his father, Bryan thought in horror, grabbing his cup and slamming the back door behind him. He couldn’t live this life. He had to get away. Debbie could come or stay, it was her choice, but he wasn’t going to moulder away in the suburbs and get middle-aged before his time, buried under an avalanche of debt. Marriage or no marriage.