published in an anthology of short stories by German publisher, Wunderlich
The strangest thing happened the other day. Like, if I tell you about it, you won’t believe me. If I swore on the Bible or the Koran or a….do the Hindus have a Book? What about the Buddists? And that one the Jews use? The Torah, is it? If I swore on a stack of those tomes, you still wouldn’t believe me.
Perhaps strange is the wrong word. Out of this world might be more fitting. Because the thing that happened was otherworldly. It really was. And I’m not the kind of person who believes in things. Ghosts or angels or demons.
But this thing happened. It did.
How about if I swore on my life. Or on the lives of my children, my dog, my husband. Maybe then, you might take me seriously.
Okay then, I swear on my life. This is the truth.
I don’t know why I still call him my husband. He hasn’t fulfilled that role in over a year. He’s one of those husbands. The ones who employ pert, blond secretaries. Young and impressionable. Then impresses upon them how handsome they are. How witty. How charming. Then have sex with them in a stationary supply room, against an old, unreliable photocopier that should have been dumped years before at one of those recycling centres where people know what to do with old, unreliable photocopiers. This happened at the office Christmas party so I imagine him wearing a pointy paper crown that shot out of a Christmas cracker when he yanked it in his effort to reveal its loot. In his effort to win.
Well, if winning means having a pert little blond wrapped around your waist like a piece of tinsel while you use an old, broken photocopier for purchase with the trousers of your Louis Copeland suit and your Homer Simpson ‘Christmas novelty’ underpants in a crumpled heap around your ankles, then yes, you won. And if winning means not using a condom and impregnating said pert blond, yes again. Victory! And if the blond turns out to be a ‘prolifer’ of the most emphatic ersuasion and will not consider terminating this festive pregnancy and insists on your support her and you agree, maybe because you’re bored or perhaps because of an over-inflated sense of duty, and you move into her apartment and become, once again, a father at the dubious age of fifty-two, then all I can say is congratulations!!
You have won.
Sorry, I’m getting away from the story. The strange thing that happened. The out-of-thisworld thing. Whatever you want to call it. Let’s just say it wasn’t everyday. Like picking your daughter up from hockey practice, or making the school lunches or helping your son with his project on the Golden Eagle. And when I say helping, let’s face it, I mean doing. I can tell you pretty much anything you want to know about the Golden Eagle. A fascinating breed, matter of fact.
It happened last Friday. The house was quiet. Only me there. Kids at school, dog having a procedure at the vet’s. Nothing serious, just a cataract removal job.
Lots of the other stay-at-homers confess to loving that. That quietness. I nod when they say that, as if I love it too but I don’t. I like noise and activity. Keeping busy. Being needed. I’m not good on my own. That was one of the hardest things to cope with when Dan left. The aloneness. After the kids had gone to bed and the dog had squashed himself into his basket with his paws over his ears as if he too was blocking out the quietness. The aloneness.
Anyway, there I am at the ironing board when I hear something. It’s faint. A scratching sound. It’s coming from overhead but when I climb the stairs, I realise it’s still above my head, the sound. It’s coming from the attic. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Like fingernails against a wall.
‘It’s a mouse, you big baby.’ In my head, I hear the booming voice of the chairwoman of the Parents Association Committee. Audrey Bellew. She thinks we’re friends. She invites herself to my house after the meetings for coffee. Or insists I go to her house. ‘I’ve made lemon drizzle cake,’ she says. I love lemon drizzle cake but I’d forego it to avoid Audrey and her booming voice and her driving confidence, coming at you like a truck down a motorway.
I’m not fond of the attic. The light doesn’t work and it smells of damp and dark and if you push your hand in front of you, it will inevitably brush against the silky fur of a spider’s web. Audrey is right. I am a big baby. I’ll force myself to go into the attic. Face my fears. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do with them? Besides, the Christmas decorations are up there and it’s already the first week in December and someone has to get them and it’s not going to be Dan.
Not this year.
There’ll be no Christmas in blondie’s apartment where Dan lives now. As well as being a pro-lifer, she turned out to be a member of some sort of group that doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Something about the commercialism. They don’t agree with it, apparently. Dan says it’s not a cult but it sounds like one all the same, with its air of disapproval.
Dan was never all that keen on Christmas. He probably won’t notice it passing this year. The baby is keeping them busy. Colic, apparently. When Dan arrives every second weekend and every other Wednesday to pick up the kids, he looks dishevelled. As if he got dressed in the dark and forgot to shave. His hair is gossamer thin in places now, despite the meticulous effort of his comb-over. His eyes are bloodshot and there is a grey pallor to the skin of his face which is beginning to sag a little around his jaw.
Dan was never comfortable with babies. Once they got big enough to have a conversation with him, wipe their bums, blow their noses, chop up their own food, he was grand. But sleepless nights, sodden nappies, red-faced wailing and the coaxing of tiny limbs and bald heads through gaps in complicated babygros, he declared himself no use which meant that I did all that and he thanked me and declared me good at such tasks. At the time, I took it as a compliment!
I used to love Christmas. I’d get started in November. Buying trinkets for stockings and Christmas crackers. I made my own. They’re easy, really. An empty toilet roll and a pretty piece of festive wrapping paper. A gold ribbon, curled with a scissors. I’d plan the theme for the Christmas tree. Seriously. I had themes. One Christmas, I had an angel theme. Ages I spent, making little angels out of papier maché. Painting them different colours. Superglueing halos over their little paper heads.
I’d have the pudding and cake baked by the second week in November. In their tins in the sideboard. The mincemeat made and stored in jars, with gingham ribbon around their rims, like something you’d see at a farmers’ market. Cards bought and written, sealed inside their envelopes waiting until an acceptable date in December to be despatched. You don’t want to seem too eager, do you?
I take a breath and go into the spare room, drag the stepladder out from under the bed, struggle out the door with it, set it up under the white square in the ceiling of the landing that is the entrance to the attic.
My mother likes to say that life is full of things you don’t want to do. You just have to get on with it. She’s said that to me quite a lot this past year. ‘You just have to get on with it, Anna.’
So here I am, standing on top of a step-ladder on a Friday morning, lifting the square of wood that separates me from the attic. It’s easier than I imagined. A lot of things turn out like that. The bins, for example. That was Dan’s job. The bins. Green, brown, black. He knew which one went out when. He had a spreadsheet. I don’t know how to set up a spreadsheet. I have a system in my head. Green bin every second Tuesday, black one on a
Friday (you need a tag for that one, I buy it in the newsagents on Thursday nights when I’m picking Ronan up from Karate), brown one has to be washed out regularly, especially during the summer when maggots can get the upper hand.
The square of wood lifts easily and I slide it across the floor of the attic. Poke my head up through the cavity. Slowly, my eyes adjust to the dark.
The scratching continues, louder now. I see the box of Christmas decorations and I reach my arm towards it but it remains centimetres from my fingertips. I’ll have to get in. All the way in.
I end up crawling. The boards moan and creak and I worry that they might not support my weight. I’ve been eating a lot of dark chocolate Oreos since Dan left.
I’d hate the kids to find me like that, one leg dangling from the ceiling of the landing, like some sort of a failed Santa. I’m pretty sure they don’t believe any more. Ten and twelve now. I think they pretend for my sake, which is funny when you think of all the years I pretended for theirs.
Suspended between the box of decorations and the roof is an expansive web, full of the kind of detail that braver people than I would find intriguing. The scratching is coming from the corner. The darkest corner, of course. I inch closer, trying not to brush against anything, for fear of dust. Not that I’m afraid of dust as such. It’s just…the idea of what it’s made of. Bits of people. Hair and skin and whatnot. Kate did a project on household
waste in third class.
There’s the exercise bike that Dan bought me, oh, several birthdays ago now. I complained that I didn’t have time to keep fit and BAM, he got me the bike. The Solutions Man, I called him. He was a dab hand. That, and time-management. Always managed to fit everything in.
The bike is thick with dust but there’s no time to wonder what bits of what people it might be made of because, just then, a vacant-eyed woman with long, unbending arms and a smooth, bald head throws herself at me, lands on my back, pins me to the ground. She feels cold. And hard. She’s not moving. She smells….plasticky.
She is a mannequin. When I started – but never finished – the dressmaking course, I called her Imelda. I had plans. Big ones. I designed a dress which I made and wore to the wedding of Dan’s sister. It was to be the first of many. It ended up just being the first.
I brush the dust off Imelda’s face and roll her onto her side so I cannot see her staring, indifferent eyes. The scratching sounds more like knocking now. Faint, like tiny knuckles against the hard wood of a front door. Deliberate. The hairs along my arms lift and stretch. My skin becomes a series of goosebumps. I move towards the sound.
It’s coming from a music box. A wooden one, varnished walnut and studded with stones, none of which are precious and most of which are missing. When Aunt Mavis bequeathed it to me, the stones were already missing. Her solicitor handed me the box with such formality that I became convinced it must contain something. A ring, perhaps. A precious stone. But when I lifted the lid, a Spanish flamenco dancer in a red and black dress and shawl unfurled herself from a plinth to which her black dancing shoes were glued and began to turn to the sweet, tinkling music that the box played back then. There is no more music when I open the lid, and the dancer remains bent and bowed, as if time has robbed her of her ability to raise herself.
The smell that tumbles from the box is one of abandonment. There is a tarnished silver key slotted into a keyhole at the side of the box and I turn it gently. Still no music, but wait. With each turn of the key, the flamenco dancer is rising, turning until she is straight as a dye, looking at me, standing on her own two tiny feet.
It’s only then I notice that the knocking has stopped. The little box is surprisingly heavy and I set it on the ground, put my fingers on the lid, about to close it.
That’s when I hear the voice.
‘Don’t you dare!’
It is a woman’s voice. Bossy and high-pitched. With a touch of echo. A voice you might imagine belongs to a school principal perhaps. A committee chairperson. A gym instructor.
‘Don’t you dare close that lid.’ I have no idea where it’s coming from. In the context of her comments, one would imagine it’s coming from the box and yet, it could be coming from anywhere in the attic. Or the house. It’s the echo, I think. Makes it…ethereal.
I don’t close the lid. I don’t dare. I set the box on the floor, carefully, as if it’s made of the type of glass that shatters spectacularly.
‘Oh, thank goodness for that.’ The flamenco dancer stretches her tiny arms over her head, spreads her fingers, rotates her hands around her wrists, then sets her hands on her narrow hips and stares at me with impatient brown eyes.
‘Well?’ she says.
‘I….’ That’s about all I can manage.
‘Oh, you’re one of those ones’ she says, with a dismissive flick of her head.
‘Wh….?’ I think I might be trying to say What? Or perhaps, Who?
‘There are a few categories. Frightened. Disbelieving. Speechless. You’re one of the speechless ones, it seems.’
‘I’ll save you the bother, shall I?’ she says in a bored tone. ‘I am a genie, blah, blah, blah, and I’m here to grant you one wish, etc, etc. You must not tell anyone about me, yada, yada, for if you do, your wish will not come true. That rhyme was unintentional, I assure you.’
‘Is it not….three wishes?’ That’s what I say when I finally manage to say something.
The dancer steps off the plinth, looks around her, seemingly unimpressed with where she has ended up. She lowers herself onto the edge of the box, crosses her legs. She has the kind of ankles I’ve always wanted; slight and shapely.
‘Where did you get that little nugget of information from? Aladdin, I imagine?’
‘No doubt, you’re wondering why I didn’t appear from some dusty, tarnished lamp, am I right?’
‘You humans are all the same. Greedy and impressionable.’
‘I’m sorry, I…’
She holds up a hand. ‘Don’t apologise. Time is of the essence. Now, what is your wish?’
‘I…I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know? Add indecisive to the list. You’d never catch the Malupas saying anything so lame as I don’t know. There’s a species who know what they want. Although they can be a little superior, it’s true.’
She raises her perfectly shaped eyebrows. ‘Oh yes, I’d forgotten. How you humans think you’re the only ones. Amusing, really. We should add egocentric to the list, shouldn’t we?’
‘So…the Malupas are…aliens?’
‘Alien is such an ugly word, don’t you think?’
‘I’m sorry, I…’
‘Not as sorry as I am, believe me. This encounter is proving not to be as scintillating as I might have hoped, given the paucity of my interactions with other lifeforms.’
I close my mouth tightly, to avoid apologising again, or saying something that may incur her wrath although that rules out most lines of enquiry, it seems.
‘So, what’s it to be’ she says, examining her long, scarlet fingernails. ‘Money? A facelift? A night with George Clooney?’
‘You can do that?’
‘Of course. But I wouldn’t if I were you. Not the most inventive of lovers, I’m afraid. The post-wish complaints department get a lot of stick.’
‘I’m not interested in George Clooney.’
She stands up, peers at me, a small expression of interest on her smooth, polished face. ‘Is that a fact?’
‘Well, well, well. Perhaps my initial impressions weren’t as accurate as they usually are.’
‘What were your…initial impressions?’ I ask. Things have reached a head when you’re standing in your attic on a Friday morning, hoping that a genie doesn’t think badly of you.
‘The usual. Housewife. Married decades. Children. A dog, probably. Sex every second Saturday after a fortifying bottle of Pinot Grigio that was on special offer in the local supermarket. Any plans pre-dating the marriage and / or the children have been put on the back burner’. She puts this last bit in inverted commas, with her fingers.
I open my mouth to…what exactly. Contradict her? I close it.
‘Don’t feel bad’ the genie says, her voice lowering and softening. ‘Even the Vulvatars sometimes confess to feeling unfulfilled. And they’re the most advanced lifeform in this particular universe. All female. They’ve learned to evolve without resorting to males. Fascinating history. Hasn’t been a war in centuries. And yet, sometimes, if you catch one off-guard, she might admit to feeling a little bored, betimes.’
‘I’m not bored.’
The genie covers her mouth and yawns.
‘I like raising children. And having a dog. And drinking Pinot Grigio.’
‘Well, it sounds like you don’t need me then.’
‘No, wait, I…’
‘Ah, now we’re getting to it, are we?’ She puts her hands on the edge of the box, leans forward, listening.
‘Well, it’s just…’
‘Spit it out, dear.’
‘Can you get my husband back?’
‘If he’s dead, I can’t.’
‘He’s not dead.’
‘I sense a sad story, nevertheless.’
‘He left me. For his secretary. She’s a lot younger than me. They have a baby now.’
‘Let’s add predictable to the list of your charming human traits, shall we?’ I think this is supposed to be amusing because the Genie is smiling although the smile is more of a smirk.
‘Could you? Get him back?’
‘Do you really want him back?’
‘I can see why. He sounds like quite the catch.’ I’m pretty sure she’s being sarcastic. I suppose, in her line of work, you hear all kinds of foolish requests. Perhaps it would be easy, to become cynical.
‘I just want everything to be the way it used to be. Before.’
‘You sure about this?
‘Can you do it or not?’ A note of unfamiliar steel in my tone. Takes the Genie by surprise as well. I can see it in the widening of her eyes.
‘Very well,’ she says. She closes her eyes and nods. A slight nod that you’d miss if you weren’t paying attention. She opens her eyes, returns to the plinth, jumps on top of it, arranges herself just like before.
‘Did you…?’ She nods. ‘It’s done.’
‘I suppose you were expecting something more dramatic. Sparks, perhaps, coming out of my fingertips. Or a few fireworks. Some whizzes and bangs as I crank up the magic. Hmmm?’
‘Well, I suppose I did think I’d see something.’
‘All species, no matter how advanced or…’ She looks directly at me, ‘…primitive, rarely see the magic. Even when it’s as plain as the nose on your face.’
The lid of the music box lowers, clicks shut. The sudden silence is like being plunged into darkness, as if the electricity has gone off unexpectedly. I remain where I am for a moment, still as a statue. I’m pretty sure, once I begin to move, I’ll realise I’ve had some sort of…episode. A flight of fancy, if you like. Once I get out of here and make my way downstairs to the unfinished pile of ironing, I’ll know. That what just happened
didn’t really happen.
In fact, already, I’m thinking about the ironing and wondering if I pulled the plug out before I came up here. That gets me moving. Nothing like a plugged-in, unsupervised iron to focus the mind.
By the time I’ve negotiated myself down the stepladder, run down the stairs, checked the iron (unplugged, thank goodness) and returned upstairs to close the door of the attic and put the ladder away, I am – simultaneously – out of breath, hungry and – yes – a little sheepish. I make tea, take a packet of chocolate Hobnobs out of the press, eat one standing at the counter and another two at the kitchen table where I sit with my mug of tea. World’s Best Mum. Makes me smile every time. And of course I know I’m not the best. But I try my best. That much is true.
‘Isn’t it well for you? The lady of leisure? And they don’t look like Weightwatchers biscuits, I must say.’
I get such a fright, the cup in my hand jerks and the tea rises up out of it, in an arc like a wave, before it succumbs to gravity and falls again, all over my hand, scalding me so that I let go of the handle and the cup falls to the table and shatters into the kind of pieces that has no call for Superglue.
‘Jesus Anna, what are you doing?’
I know it’s him before I turn around. Even so, the sight of him, the fact of him, standing in my kitchen, wearing a tracksuit and slippers, stuns me momentarily. Dazes me, like I’ve whacked my head off something hard.
The first thought that occurs is this: My wish came true.
This is followed by a second thought which goes something like this: But there’s no such thing as genies.
Hot on the heels of this one is the following: Was Dan always this….unsympathetic?
Automatically, my hands reach for the shards of the cup, one of which becomes embedded in my finger. Blood drips onto the tiled floor, steady, like a tap that hasn’t been turned tightly enough.
‘Anna, look, you’re making a mess.’ He points at my finger, at the blood on the floor, the tea on the table. The first thing I say is this: ‘That was my favourite mug.’
‘The kids got it for €3.99 in Easons,’ he says.
He seems real. He doesn’t look tired. No red veins running through his eyes. His combover is in better shape. Was it always that dark? Suspiciously dark. He smells good too. That lotion he uses. Men’s moisturiser. A sharp tang off it.
‘Here.’ He hands me a piece of kitchen roll. ‘Mop yourself up with that.’
I wrap it around my finger, concentrating on the task, buying myself some time. Afterwards, I say, ‘What are you doing here?’ I hold my breath.
‘I’m working from home today,’ he says, with a slightly injured air as if he can’t believe I don’t know this. I always knew his schedule. That way, I could slot myself in around it.
‘What year is it?’ I ask then.
‘You’re really freaking me out, Anna.’ He puts his hand on the door handle as if for support. I walk over to the door that leads into the utility room, look at the calendar hanging there. It’s still 2014, according to it.
I look at Dan again. ‘What’s your secretary’s name?’
‘Natasha. You know that.’
‘Does she have a baby?’
‘Not as far as I know. Should I call a doctor?’
I shake my head. ‘Sorry..I…I’m not myself this morning.’
He smiles. ‘Well, can you be yourself this afternoon? I’ve got that important meeting in town so I won’t be around to clear up after you.’ He nods at the table where the cup remains, although he shows no sign of clearing anything up. Instead he says, ‘Are you making tea? I’m parched after that conference call. Thanks darling.’ On his way past me, he leans in as if he’s going to kiss me. He gets most of the way to my cheek, then makes a kissy noise. Emm-wahh!! And I remember that. From before. The leaning in, the not quite making it, the kissy noise. Emm-wahhh!!!!
I don’t remember it bothering me before. It was one of those gestures. A tic. Like the way he moved his tongue along his teeth after a meal, checking for food he might have missed. And his spreadsheets for the bins. Who creates a spreadsheet for the bins? He does. A habit, is all. Everyone has their own way about them.
I clear away the pieces of my favourite cup, wrap it in newspaper and put it in the wheelie bin, outside, so the children don’t see it. €3.99 in Easons. Good to know. I can replace it before the children notice.
I make tea. Carry two cups into his office, off the hallway. There he is, in his office.
I had turned it into a sort of library of late. Gathered my books and arranged them on the empty shelves that Dan left behind. It gave the room a cheerful disposition, especially in the evening when the setting sun spilled through the rectangle of the window, highlighting the titles of books I’d read long ago, persuading me to read them again.
A line of black lever arch files march across the shelves now, their labels covered in unfamiliar acronyms and random numbers.
Dan’s hair is definitely darker than I remember. He swivels around on his swively office chair, smiles when he sees the cup of tea, frowns ever so slightly when I sit on the chair in front of his desk, like I’m applying for a loan and he’s the bank manager and the answer will be no.
‘So,’ I begin and then I stop. Think about what I’m going to say. I’m not going to say anything about the Genie because, well, then I’d have to go into the details of him and the pert secretary who turned out to be this emphatic pro-lifer who doesn’t believe in Christmas. I don’t want to tell him that. Don’t want to remind myself. What he is capable of.
He’s here. That’s the main thing. It was an accident. A mistake. People make mistakes. All the time. It’s the moving on that’s the important bit.
‘Anna?’ He is looking at me with the crease he gets at the top of his nose when he is concerned or worried.
My husband is concerned about me. Worried.
My husband is here.
He looks….contrary. When he puts on his worried face. Like he’s thinking negative things. About me. I shake my head, dislodge the thought.
‘Anna?’ Impatient now. Exasperated.
‘Sorry, love, I was away with the fairies.’ Close enough, I suppose.
‘Look, I need to get this report done before my meeting so if you don’t mind…’ He nods at my cup, then towards the door.
‘Oh…of course.’ I smile but instead of leaving, I bend my head until it is level with his, cup his face in my hands, close my eyes.
His phone rings. He rolls his chair backwards. Fast. ‘Just have to….’ He picks up the phone. ‘Anthony, good of you to return my call. Now, about this annual report….’ He looks at me and makes a sort of shooing gesture with his hand and I remember then how he did that and how I never much liked it.
He still does it.
I still don’t like it.
I am barely out the door when I hear the sound of his shoe against the door. The click of the latch, as the door shuts, the relieved moan of his chair as he leans back.
In the kitchen, I check the press. There are the tins. I look inside. The Christmas cake is in one, the pudding in the other. I open the fridge. A line of mincemeat in pretty jars with gingham ribbons tied around the rims, just like the ones you’d see at a farmers’ market.
My mother answers on the third ring. ‘What is it Anna? I’m at bridge.’
‘Dan is here.’
‘He’s in the house. In his office. Working.’
‘Yes, yes. You told me the other day. You said he had that meeting. This afternoon, isn’t it? Something important. I can’t quite remember now.’
‘When did I tell you that?’
‘It’s nearly my turn to bid. Whatever’s the matter?’
‘Just tell me.’
‘Oh…I don’t know….Tuesday perhaps. Or, no, wait, it was Wednesday morning. You were taking Dan’s car in for the NCT and you rang me from the centre because you ended up having to wait for ages.’
‘Oh…yes….’ That rings a bell, albeit faint.
‘Are you alright? You haven’t been taking too many of those pills the doctor prescribed, have you?’
‘The Anxicalm, remember?’ She speaks slowly, like I’m a child. Or someone who doesn’t speak English fluently.
‘When did I start taking those?’
‘A few months ago, remember? For the panic attacks. Should I be worried, Anna?’
‘No, I’m fine, Mum. Really.’
‘Look, I’ll call you later, alright darling?’ Before she hangs up, I hear her say, ‘Three no trump,’ in her clear, uncomplicated voice and, for a moment, it creates in me a yearning. To be a child again. At Christmas. To believe. To hope.
The children confirm the changed landscape of my reality.
‘Your dad’s in the his office’ I tell Kate, when she charges in the front door after school, dumps her bag, coat and runners in the hall, then invades the kitchen, opening presses, pouring a glass of juice, putting the empty carton back in the fridge.
‘Hockey practice got cancelled. The pitch is flooded.’
‘I said your dad is in his office. In the house, I mean.’
She stops buttering a cracker and looks at me. ‘So?’
‘Aren’t you going to say hello to him?’
She takes a bite of the cracker, shakes her head. ‘He’ll be busy. I’ll see him later. I’m going out.’ She leaves crumbs in her wake, like Hansel and Gretel on their treacherous journey through the forest. I get as far as getting the hoover out, plugging it in. I don’t switch it on. Instead I sit at the table which is still full of the debris of breakfast.
It’s been a strange morning, all told.
I go upstairs, close my bedroom door, sit on the chair in front of the mirror. I look older than I did this morning. Jaded. My hair needs to be cut. And the roots are showing. In my life before this morning, my pre-genie life, I’d had it cut only last week. When Dan took the kids to the match last Wednesday. I had the afternoon off. The evening. All the way to nine o’clock that night. I got my hair done. Saw a movie. One with subtitles that Dan never would have agreed to. Made a toasted sandwich when I got home. Ate it on my lap in the den watching a travel show. My hair was bouncy. There were no roots.
By Saturday afternoon, resentment has set, like trifle. In my old life my pre-Genie life, it would have been my weekend off. I love them so much, my children, but never more so than on the Sunday night after my weekend off. When they are returned to me and they look shiny and new and fabulous. I hug them tight on those Sunday nights. Having the weekend off makes me aware of them as people rather than just my children. My charges.
By Saturday afternoon, I have dropped Kate at her first hockey match, whipped around the supermarket to pick up next week’s dinners and lunches – and yes, a bottle of Pinot Grigio that has been reduced by two euros! – picked Kate up after the match, collected Ronan from the house – after finding his other football boot behind the dog’s kennel – dropped him to the away match in Skerries, drove back, picked up Kate, raced her over to Clontarf for the second match – after convincing her that her hair did not in fact need to be washed beforehand – then darted home, flung a Bolognese sauce together without using a jar because Dan worries about the preservatives and the saturated fats and the whathaveyou, put the shopping away, threw a cardigan over my
top which now sported a bright red spot where the not-from-a-jar Bolognese got a bit feisty – and legged it back to Clontarf and Skerries respectively to pick up my children who, after a full and busy day, were still able to muster up the strength to argue with each other pretty much all the way home over whose turn it was to be in charge of the radio.
Dan had to attend a golf tournament. A work thing. Important, he’d said, when he woke me at 6.30am to see if I knew where his club golf jumper was. In the third drawer of the tallboy, on the right, underneath the navy and green golf trousers.
Golf trousers. Nothing looks quite as foolish. That was my thought as Dan left the house at 7.15am.
He’s not back yet. It’s ten o’clock. There’s the thought, bigger than niggling. Him. The pert blond. The pro-lifer. The Christmas disbeliever. No roots showing through her hair, I’d say. I pop another dark chocolate Oreo into my mouth. Wash it down with the discount Grigio.
And then I remember what she said. The Genie. About the post-wish department. Getting a lot of stick about George Clooney.
I haul myself into the attic again which seems easier now, after a good half bottle of twelve per cent Italian. I move towards the corner where the box is. A spider crawls across my hand like it’s a pedestrian crossing. The string of a web brushes against my face. There is a scurrying noise that could be a mouse. A rat even. In the dark, I hear my breath coming and going. I can taste the dust in my mouth. I crawl on.
She’s sitting on the edge of the box, like she’s expecting me.
‘I’ve been expecting you,’ she says.
‘How did you get out of the box?’
She examines her fingernails. ‘When we can persuade the authorities that there is a greater than seventy percent chance of a post-wish complaint, we are granted release, pending the complaint.’
‘I’m not complaining.’
‘So you are delighted with the outcome of your wish? Having your husband back?’
‘You want me to reverse it.’
‘It’s a difficult process. Complicated.’
‘Does that mean you can’t…?’
‘Of course I can. I didn’t get to where I am today by accident you know.
‘How did you know I’d be back?’
‘Experience.’ She looks at me. Softness has crept into her face. A hint of understanding. Perhaps she gets this a lot. From women like me.
‘The next time, I’ll wish for something else.’
‘They all say that.’
‘I will. A convertible maybe.
‘Not much room for hockey sticks and football kit in a convertible’ she says and I nod because she’s right.
This wishing business is harder than you’d think.
The un-wishing is just as inimpressive as the wishing. She closes her eyes. Perhaps breathes a little deeper than before. Then a sort of a faint pop, like the noise you’d imagine a bubble might make when it bursts. She opens her eyes and climbs back into the box, steps upon the plinth. ‘Close the lid gently, will you?’ she says.
‘Where are you going next?’ I ask.
‘Classified’ she says.
‘I didn’t do anything.’
‘You did.’ I close the lid and when I open it again, the flamenco dancer stares at me with her vacant brown eyes and I know the Genie has gone.
I reach for the box of Christmas decorations, breaking the web as I do so. I remember Ronan telling me that spiders use silk to make their webs.
I find that intriguing.
I decide to put the Christmas decorations up. It’ll be a nice surprise for the children when they get back from their father’s, tomorrow night. I hum a Christmas carol under my breath. Silent Night. I think about buying mincemeat in a fancy jar with a gingham ribbon tied around the rim at a farmer’s market tomorrow.
Afterwards, I sit in the armchair that used to be my husband’s, but now offers a more democratic first-come-first-served seating arrangement. The crackle of the fire and the gentle snore of the dog in his basket is like a soundtrack to a peaceful life. A life that someone might want.