This extract from my upcoming novel, ‘Tomorrow’s Chances’, focuses on the story of a character named Derek Fitzmaurice.
The kids have been sniping at each other ever since they got home and Derek is nearly at his wits’ end with them. At dinner time, Sophie asked him why he couldn’t have made the pasta a bit softer for her, while Luke had moaned over the fact that he didn’t put in enough celery, and declared ‘the beef looks like poo.’ Now he is trying to get through a pile of administrative work and he still can’t concentrate.
‘But … I want to be Wario.’ Luke’s voice drifts over to him from the living room.
‘I’m being Wario.’
‘That’s not fair, Sophie, I’ve been stuck as Luigi for five games in a row. He’s crap.’
‘You’re not losing ‘cause Luigi’s crap, Luke. It’s ‘cause you’re crap.’
‘I am NOT! You’re way crapper than me. You’re only winning ‘cause you keep on cheating.’
There is the sound of a brief scuffle.
‘Daaaaad! Sophie punched me!’
‘Yeah well, Luke kicked me and broke my arm and gave me a Chinese burn.’
‘I didn’t break your arm…’
‘Yeah, you did, it’s all floppy, see?’
Derek rises from his desk and strides towards the living room.
‘Right. That’s it. No more Wii. And Sophie – go and do your homework. Now!’
‘No buts. I’m fed up of this carry-on.’
They grumble and whine and stare at him as though he were the Antichrist.
‘Mammy never shouted at us like that…’ Luke mumbles, staring down at the floor. Derek shuts his eyes for a second, trying to ignore the stab of pain that has just ripped through him. ‘Your mother never did a lot of things,’ he says shortly. ‘Now get your school bags and do some work.’
‘What do you mean, Mammy never did a lot of things?’ Sophie demands. She folds her arms and glares at him, her chin jutting defiantly. Luke pauses in the midst of picking up his bag to stare at Derek, his eyes wide.
‘It’s…’ Derek searches for something suitably vague to say, but can think of nothing. ‘Never mind, Sophie. It doesn’t matter. I’m just a bit tired, I’m not making any sense at the moment. Forget about it.’
‘Dad? What did she not do?’ Sophie yells.
‘Go and do your homework!’
For a moment, his daughter stands there, glaring at him – tears begin to form in her eyes, much to Derek’s horror – before storming past him and running upstairs, where she slams her bedroom door behind her. The noise of it seems to make the entire house shake.
Derek’s heart sinks. He shouldn’t have made that comment about Anne-Marie. He shouldn’t have upset the kids. This was the one thing he vowed never to do: to turn them against her, or cause them any confusion in that regard.
‘I’m sorry, Lukey,’ he says softly. ‘I didn’t mean anything by it.’
‘’Kay,’ Luke responds, now chewing at his fingernails. Derek knows that this is a nervous habit of his. He feels like kicking himself right now.
‘My Irish homework … please don’t be cross with me, but … I only got two out of ten words right in our quiz today. Ms. Donovan told me that I should tell you. I’m sorry, Dad.’
‘There’s no need to apologise, Lukey. And I’m sure Ms. Donovan isn’t cross either. She just wants to make sure you’re getting help.’
‘’Kay,’ Luke mutters disconsolately.
‘Tell you what Lukey, why don’t we do it together today? Let’s go to the kitchen, come on…’
In the kitchen, a flash of white card catches Derek’s eye. It’s the card that Moira left for him when she was last here. The card for that Orla Fallon woman. Derek moved it from the kitchen table to the shelf on top of the bread bin, and it has remained there ever since, occasionally drawing his attention.
‘That same nervous stare at the floor. The fingers in his mouth again. Derek sighs.’
The thought of calling Orla Fallon has crossed his mind a few times since Moira recommended it, but after this incident, he definitely should.
‘Lukey? I’m just going to make a quick phone call, alright? I’ll be back in here in a minute. Just start getting your books out.’
‘’Kay.’ That same nervous stare at the floor. The fingers in his mouth again. Derek sighs. He will have to reassure his son when he comes back.
Back out in the hall, phone and card in hand, he nearly loses his nerve before dialling the counsellor’s number – but shakes himself and proceeds, nevertheless. He needs to do this. The kids are counting on him.
‘Hello. Is … is this Orla Fallon?’
‘Yes. How may I help you?’
‘Ms Fallon, hello.’ He clears his throat awkwardly. ‘My name is Derek Fitzmaurice and I’m calling about, eh …’ His voice is a little hoarse. He clears his throat again and wets his lips. ‘I’m calling to book an appointment with you. Whenever you next have one available, that is. My sister gave me your phone number…’
‘I understand. Well, would you like me to talk you through the consultation process?’
‘Yes. Please. Thanks.’
‘The first appointment is just a quick consultation. Payment can be arranged on a sliding scale, according to each client’s individual needs and means. I’m a strong believer that financial difficulty should never be a barrier to any of my clients accessing the help they may need. So if you need to discuss this with me –’
‘Payment won’t be a problem,’ Derek assures her quickly.
‘Okay. However, if you make the decision to start arranging regular appointments and it ever does become an issue, don’t hesitate to let me know. You need not commit to any future sessions after the first consultation: the purpose of our first session is to simply discuss any concerns you may have and to assess whether we can work together successfully in the future.’
‘I suppose I just want to know how to help my kids. My wife is gone, and I … I’m … struggling a bit.’
‘I understand. Well, I have a slot available on Thursday the 12th of October at 3p.m. We can see how things go then. Does that suit you?’
‘Yes, I … I think so. That’s a couple of weeks away, isn’t it? It’s just – is there anything that could be done before then? Sorry. I don’t … I don’t want to come across as pushy, I just want to start getting a handle on things as soon as possible.’
‘That is understandable, of course. There is a support group for single parents meeting next week. A colleague of mine leads it – it may be helpful for you.’
‘Wednesday…’ Derek says slowly. ‘Alright. I’ll think about it.’
‘If you would like to know more, perhaps I could email you the details?’
‘Yes. Thank you.’
A minute later, he walks back into the kitchen to find Luke chewing ferociously on his fingernails.
‘Don’t do that, Lukey,’ he says wearily. His son’s face instantly drops. Derek forces himself to smile – he needs to make an effort to brighten up a bit. ‘Now. Let’s see about this Irish homework, hm?’
✮ ✮ ✮
Later that afternoon, he stands outside Sophie’s bedroom door feeling somewhat nervous. He carries a mug of hot chocolate, topped with whipped cream and colourful sprinkles. It is exactly the kind of drink that Sophie loves. She is only allowed to have it on weekend nights or very special occasions.
You know I try but I don’t do too well with apologies…
Those lyrics have blared from Sophie’s bedroom many times before. Derek recognises them well. Justin Bieber’s Sorry. An apt title, he thinks to himself, smiling ruefully at his peace offering.
The music instantly stops. ‘Okay, fine,’ he hears her shout. ‘I turned it off. Happy?’
‘I didn’t come here to make you turn off your music, Soph.’
‘Fine, then my homework is finished. Alright? Now leave me alone!’
‘I’m not here to ask about that either, Soph. I made you some hot chocolate.’
Silence for a moment.
‘The type with the sprinkles,’ he adds cheerily.
Cautious footsteps approach. Sophie doesn’t open the door fully: she leaves it slightly ajar and stands there, peering suspiciously at him. Derek fleetingly remembers the sceptical face of that Price Watchers manager – the pressed blue suit, the guarded stance, the thick red hair – before brushing the image to one side and holding out his hot chocolate.
‘Well, Soph? Can I come in?’
‘I guess so,’ she harrumphs grudgingly, stepping back from the door. As always whenever he catches a glimpse of Sophie’s room – she rarely allows anyone into it – Derek finds himself taken aback by the sheer volume of glittery items. Her walls are bedecked with various boyband posters and fairy lights. He gingerly takes a seat on a squashy pink chair opposite Sophie’s bed, where Sophie has now perched herself, hot chocolate in hand and an air of slight belligerence still lingering in her eyes.
‘Sophie, listen. I’m very sorry about what I said. I never meant to upset you.’
‘Well, you did upset me.’
‘Oh, Soph –’
‘You hate her, don’t you?’
‘No, no, no, Sophie, of course not! Your mother and I … well, things weren’t easy. You know that. But of course I never hated her. I can’t hate her.’
‘She is old enough now not to be fooled by blithe promises that he cannot possibly keep.’
Sophie stares into her lap. ‘Did she … did she go because of us? Me and Luke’
‘Oh God, Soph, absolutely not. None of this is your fault. Please know that.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ she looks up again, and her eyes are filled with tears. ‘But even before … she was always so angry … you were always fighting…’
‘Well, we –’
‘She’s not coming back.’
‘She’s not, Dad.’
Derek wishes there was something he could say to her: some words of comfort or reassurance. She is old enough now not to be fooled by blithe promises that he cannot possibly keep.
She begins to sob. All Derek can do is go to her side and gently hug her.
‘I miss her so much,’ she wails.
‘I know you do, Soph,’ he says hoarsely. ‘I miss her too.’
He allows her to cry for as long as she needs to – until the tears have finally stopped raining down onto his chest, until she is no longer shaking. He doesn’t mind her doing this: in recent months, she has become too aloof, too independent – too much of a pre-adolescent, in other words – to display the slightest sign of needing him like this. After what seems like an eternity, she settles into silence, pushes herself away, and wipes her eyes.
‘Thanks for the hot chocolate.’
‘Soph, if you ever need me in future, know that I’ll always be here for you, okay? There is nothing I wouldn’t do for you.’
‘Yeah … thanks, Dad.’
‘How are things with Jessie White?’
‘Oh … fine.’
‘Didn’t you tell me that she was a bitch not so long ago?’
‘I thought that kind of language was banned, Dad,’ his daughter replies archly. ‘Anyway, everything is fine now. Rob Farrell is a loser and us women have to stick together. Sisterhood is important. Everyone knows that.’
‘I see. Well, I’m glad things are better.’ He rises from the bed and begins to walk out of the room, before remembering. ‘Did you actually do your homework, Soph?’
‘Um … some of it.’
Derek raises an eyebrow.
‘Okay, okay, I haven’t done it yet. But I will now, I swear.’
He shakes his head, somewhat amused, and extends his hand.
‘Give me your phone. You can have it back when your homework is done.’
Sophie lets out a groan, but hands it over without too much protest. She is not as furious with him as she was before.
Father and daughter: Daily Record
Whipped cream and sprinkles: Scary Mommy