This is an extract from my upcoming novel ‘Tomorrow’s Chances’, which focuses on the story of a character named Emma Harrison.
Emma’s knuckles are wrapped so tightly around the steering wheel of her car that they have turned an angry, mottled white. She is so enraged by the traffic light at the end of her street, which has remained stubbornly crimson for the past ten minutes – or so it seems to her – that she can barely breathe. She does not need to be stuck in traffic right now. She needs to get to Diane’s house as soon as possible. Once she has contented herself that Brian will be well looked after for the rest of the weekend, she can get on with her work. Twenty minutes ago – through an angry, expletive-ridden phone call – she discovered that one of the new supervisors at Price Watchers completely messed up last week’s invoices, so she will have to redo every one of them herself, on top of everything else she needs to finish tonight.
To make matters worse, she had yet another row with Brian before leaving the house. He somehow considered this to be the opportune moment to tell her that he wants to be vegetarian from now on. Vegetarian! How will she know what to make for his dinners now? Does he really believe that she doesn’t have enough to contend with already, without having to master the art of vegetarian cookery?
He is sitting in the back of the car right now, carrying a shopping bag full of God-knows-what. He did show some of the contents to her before they left the house – lentils and quinoa and things that she barely knew existed – but she was bewildered by the sight of it all. She has a small vegetarian and speciality foods section in her own supermarket, of course, as there seems to be such a high demand for that kind of thing nowadays. However, she rarely frequents it herself.
Why can’t her son be like any other teenager and rebel against her by going off the rails? Why does he have to be so … principled about everything?
Brian is her only child, and she loves him with all of her heart, but he is the most wilful, stubborn, utterly trenchant sixteen-year-old she has ever come across. He must have inherited those traits from her, she reflects ruefully.
When will this traffic light change? How, in the name of God, can it still be red? Is it broken? Her phone is on a speaker stand right next to her – should she call someone and complain about this? She doesn’t know who is meant to be in charge of maintaining traffic lights in the city centre, though. Perhaps the council…
She needs to calm down. Relax. That was what her counsellor told her the other day. Orla Fallon had recommended that in times of stress, Emma should take a few deep breaths and consciously relax every muscle in her body. This simple ritual would work wonders in helping her to deal with her anger, she had assured her sceptical client.
‘Even if you can only do this breathing exercise once a day to begin with, that will be enough to start making a real difference to your peace of mind. Once a day, just forget about all the things you have to accomplish. Forget about yesterday and tomorrow. When it comes right down to it, Emma, all we have is the present moment, and staying aware of what is happening right now, in this moment … that’s all we can ever do.’
It had sounded suspiciously like New Age bunkum to Emma’s ears, but right now – with Brian glaring at her from his seat in the back of the car, and the lights giving no indication that they are about to change any time soon – she supposes it’s worth giving it a go.
‘His call can mean only one thing: he is about to be mysteriously ‘held up.’’
On hearing her phone ring, however, and seeing her ex-husband’s name flash up on the screen, a fresh impulse of rage courses through her veins. She presses the answer button, and his voice fills the car.
‘Emma!’ he exclaims, his voice cheery and bright. ‘How are you? Very well, I hope.’
‘When will you be at your mother’s, Frank?’ she snaps. She is well-acquainted with this ebullient tone in her ex-husband’s voice, knows that he only ever uses it when he wants to get out of something, and knows that his call can mean only one thing: he is about to be mysteriously ‘held up.’
‘Ah. Well, that’s the thing. I’ve been held up –’
‘What do you mean, you’ve been held up? You promised you would be there at eight!’
‘There’s a bit of a work do on at the moment. Birthday party for one of the admin girls.’
‘One of the girls,’ Emma snarls, tightening her grip on the steering wheel. ‘Oh, of course. It’s always “one of the girls” with you, isn’t it, Frank?’
‘For fuck’s sake Emma, don’t go starting something,’ he fires back at her. ‘I’ll be there as soon as possible, alright? I’m just staying for one or two drinks. And at least I had the decency to call and let you know. Do I not get any points for that, no?’
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Mr Frank Betancourt. Also known as the King of Decency.’
‘There’s no point even trying to reason with you. Is Brian there?’
‘Yes he is. We’re on the way to Diane’s right now.’
‘Brian!’ Frank calls out. ‘Brian, are you there?’
Brian leans forward in his seat. ‘Hey,’ he mumbles, his face flat and expressionless.
‘Did you hear I’m going to be a little late?’
‘But I should be out of here by ten. Well, maybe eleven. So I’ll see you soon, okay?’
‘Fine. Whatever. ’
‘Talk to you soon. Bye!’
Frank hangs up, and Emma and Brian are enveloped in a glacial silence. She glances at him – wondering whether she ought to say something that might cheer him up – but the deep scowl on his forehead persuades her otherwise.
The lights turn green a few seconds later, and the long line of vehicles in front of her begins to trundle forward, much to her relief. She couldn’t have endured another moment of this gridlock.
‘So. He’s going to be fucking late,’ Brian declares suddenly, from the gloom of the back seat. ‘Same as always.’
‘No bad language, Brian.’
‘Why not? You use it all the time. You and Dad.’
‘Do not take that tone with me.’
‘It’s the truth.’
‘I am not in the mood for another row with you, Brian. Not now.’
✭ ✭ ✭
‘Sorry we’re late, Diane.’
‘Late?!’ the older woman exclaims with a laugh. ‘Not at all, not at all, come in…’
Diane is a slim, blue-eyed woman of small stature, in her early seventies. Her silver hair has been set in curlers tonight, while a light blue dressing gown is wrapped around her waist, over a pair of cream pyjamas. As she begins to usher Emma and Brian into the house, an orange and white kitten appears – seemingly from out of nowhere – and winds himself around her ankles. ‘Benny!’ Diane exclaims delightedly. ‘Benny, you good boy, have you come to say hello to the visitors? Oh, he is such a good boy … aren’t you, Benny? Aren’t you? He’s been with me for a week now. Got him off my friend Bernadette – the one who works for that animal charity in Cabra, you know. I was only planning to foster little Benny Boy at first, but as soon as I set eyes on him, it was love at first sight. So I said to Bernadette, ah sure, I’ll take him for good!’
With that, she picks up the kitten and kisses him on the head. Emma has never been the type of person to go weak at the knees when greeted with the sight of a young animal, but she can’t help but smile as Benny, seemingly not content with remaining in Diane’s arms, climbs impatiently onto her left shoulder. Once there, he begins to lick the side of her face, his whiskers lightly grazing her cheek.
‘How have the other cats reacted to him?’
‘Well, Sir Pawskins wasn’t so sure about him in the beginning,’ Diane trills affectionately as she scratches Benny under the chin. ‘He’s the oldest cat in the house, so what he says goes! But as soon as he accepted Benny Boy here, the others followed suit.’ She grins at the intrepid young cat as he begins to bat a paw against one of her hair rollers. ‘Bit of a ladies’ man, this one. Loves to chase the girls. He has a sweet spot for Miss Milly in particular! Thank God they’re all neutered, though, or I’d have a bit of trouble on my hands, now wouldn’t I?’
She cackles with mirth, bestows a second kiss on Benny, then turns to her grandson. ‘And how are you, Brian? Got yourself a new haircut, I see! Very nice.’
Brian smiles languidly at this. He has indeed changed his hairstyle recently: most of it has been shaved off, with several long, thick strands remaining at the front of his head, dyed black and purple. He had it done while staying with his father, and Emma nearly had a heart attack when she first saw it. She fears that his principal will be calling her into the office any day now, to complain that he has violated the school dress code or something along those lines.
‘Come on in to the kitchen,’ Diane urges them. ‘I have all the tea things ready. You’ll stay for a cup, Emma, won’t you?’
‘Yes, of course.’
Diane’s kitchen is a riot of pastel colours, extravagant lace doilies and gigantic, squashy armchairs, festooned by a mass of embroidered cushions. On the table, she has laid out all of her best cutlery for the occasion, as well as the antique silver teapot she has always described as ‘her pride and joy’. In the midst of it all, there sits a large black cat, the end of her tail twitching in annoyance at the visitors’ sudden arrival. Her deep green eyes stare at Emma and Brian with something akin to derision as they take their seats before her.
‘Ah, Lucy, get down from that table,’ Diane exclaims, lifting the cat and firmly depositing her onto the floor. ‘I’ll be feeding you later. Get down there now, and play with Benny Boy.’
Lucy shoots her a highly affronted look and stalks off to a corner of the room.
‘Yes, thank you.’
‘I made blueberry muffins yesterday! Have one, go on … oh, and try one of these too,’ she urges Emma, as she pushes an enormous plate of sandwiches in front of her.
‘Is it okay if I put my stuff in the press, Gran?’ Brian asks, holding up his shopping bag.
‘Of course, love, of course. Work away.’ As he gets out of his seat and begins to move past her, Diane squints at the bag. ‘What have you got in there, then?’
‘Well, um … this is quinoa,’ he mumbles, removing a little package from the bag and showing it to her.
‘Kee … keen-what, love?’
‘Quinoa. It’s kind of like rice, only it cooks faster. I have other stuff in here too: kidney beans and chickpeas and lentils…’
‘Oh, right,’ Diane mumbles, looking somewhat befuddled. ‘Are you on one of them health kick things then, love?’
‘He’s gone vegetarian, Diane,’ Emma explains wearily.
‘Has he now? Well, that’s grand. But, eh … how do you cook that keen-ah stuff, Brian?’
‘It’s okay, Gran,’ he reassures her. ‘I know how to cook it myself, I looked it up on the Internet.’
Diane smiles fondly at him. ‘Well! Aren’t you a great lad, Brian, doing your own cooking like that? My boys would never have cooked for themselves at your age. But things are different now, I suppose…’
‘He will be here soon, won’t he?’
Benny jumps onto her lap, and she absentmindedly strokes him a few times before glancing up at a large, ornate wooden clock on the wall.
‘Anyway, did my Frank call?’
‘He’s been held up, unfortunately.’
‘Oh. Did he say why?’
‘Ah. Poor man, he works so hard. It’ll be lovely to have him here for the weekend when he comes, anyway. Oh, did I tell you he’ll be taking Brian and myself to the pictures on Sunday? So we can all have a great day out, the three of us, before you come to collect him.’ As Brian returns to the table, she reaches out and tweaks his cheek – prompting him to smile good-naturedly at her – then glances at Emma. ‘He will be here soon, won’t he?’
Fighting back the growing lump in her throat, Emma manages to smile and say, ‘oh, yes. He will, I’m sure.’