This is an extract from my upcoming novel, ‘Tomorrow’s Chances’, which focuses on the story of a character named Sarah.
‘So, it’s definitely winter. I’ve made my peace with it,’ Sarah announces confidently as she links arms with Mark. They are walking down the quays by now, cautiously navigating their way through the crowds. The footpath is lightly coated with frost, so they must walk slowly. The air is frigid and their breath is visible – Sarah is grateful that she remembered to wear her gloves today – but the sky is a brilliant, cloudless azure.
‘You’ve made your peace with it?’ Mark exclaims. He turns to look at her, his deep brown eyes filled with mirth, and she experiences that familiar flip of her stomach at the sight of them. ‘I’m expecting to hear another rant about how cold it is any minute now…’
She mock-glares at him.
‘You’re always ranting about it,’ he insists, undeterred.
‘Hey! I’m not always ranting.’
‘Well, I like the weather right now. Cold but clear. I can deal with that. When it’s cold and raining, though … ugh. It’s the worst.’
Mark laughs and pulls her close so that he can plant a kiss on her forehead. Sarah can’t stop herself from smiling. She loves his little forehead kisses. ‘What’s the name of the restaurant you’re going to again?’
‘Ah, yes. Well, as I’m going in that direction, maybe I’ll say hi, chat for a couple of minutes…’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course.’ He gently squeezes her hand. ‘I’m going to be passing by, so of course I’ll say hello. Is that okay with you?’
‘Absolutely. I just think I should warn you that my aunt Joanne can be a little … abrupt.’
‘Hmm. I shouldn’t be scared, should I?’ he jokes, with a slightly nervous smile.
‘Ah, she’ll probably be okay. It’s just … when she’s in a good mood, she can be really nice to talk to. But when she isn’t, she’s a little scary! The last time we met, I had to endure a million and one questions about why I’m still working in a shop, am I even using that degree of mine, don’t I realise I should start saving for my future, why haven’t I found a man yet … it was kind of excruciating.’
‘Wow. Sounds like a barrel of laughs.’
‘My mother thinks you’re great, and she’s the one whose opinion really matters to me.’
‘Well … at least I can tell her I have the whole man part sorted out now.’ She glances a little anxiously at him as she says this – they’ve only just begun to refer to themselves as a couple, so could that remark have been a bit too much?
Mark immediately sets her mind at ease with another warm smile. ‘That’s right. But now I’m afraid Joanne will hate me on sight and try to talk you out of being with me…’
‘She won’t, she won’t. She’d better not! Anyway, my mother already thinks you’re great, and she’s the one whose opinion really matters to me.’
They have soon reached Scotty’s. Lynnette, Bernadette and Joanne are all standing outside. Lynnette recognises Mark at once and rushes forward, arms extended to welcome them both. ‘Ah, Mark! Lovely to see you again.’
‘It’s great to see you too, Lynnette. How are the dogs?’
‘Oh God, they’re as mad as ever. You should have seen the state they left my garden in this morning…’
Sarah laughs at this, then turns her attention to Joanne and Bernadette, who are watching them curiously. ‘Granny, Joanne – this is Mark. My boyfriend.’ A fresh wave of joy sweeps through her. She said it to herself a few times this morning, in the delirious aftermath of the previous day – when she had danced around the apartment listening to whatever sappy, romantic song she could find on YouTube – but this is her very first time saying it to another person.
‘Ah, lovely,’ Bernadette declares.
‘And Mark – this is my grandmother, Bernadette, and my aunt, Joanne.’
Joanne smiles and reaches out to shake his hand. ‘Nice to meet you, Mark.’
‘Great to meet you both.’
‘Will you be joining us, Mark?’ Lynnette asks him brightly.
‘I’m afraid I’m on the way to a meeting at the moment –’
‘A meeting?’ she exclaims. ‘Ah God, don’t tell me your bosses are calling you in on a Saturday. That’s ridiculous.’
‘Oh no, it’s the AGM for a group I’m in. We’re all volunteers and Saturday was the only day that worked for most people. There’s a whole load of financial stuff to sort out, and Rachel – the chairwoman – is already eager to start talking about our plans for the Pride march next year, so I said I’d help them out.’
Sarah glances a little nervously at Joanne. She can see some sort of reaction to what Mark has just said in her aunt’s face: an almost imperceptible tightening of the muscles around her eyes and jaw. She has been known to be a bit funny about things like this. Hopefully she won’t say anything…
‘Ah well,’ Bernadette chimes in. ‘Sure, look, we’ll have to get you another time.’
‘Definitely. Anyway, I’ll leave you to it. Enjoy your meal.’
Sarah hugs Mark for a long time before he leaves, and spends a few seconds watching him walk down the street before turning to join her family. She has to laugh at herself sometimes. She is well aware of how sappy she has become lately … but she is loving every moment of it.
‘Well, it was nice to see him,’ Lynnette comments quietly, allowing Joanne and Bernadette to go into the restaurant ahead of her. She winks. ‘Things are going well, I presume?’
Sarah beams at her in return: a silent promise that she will engage in a proper mother-daughter chat about the whole thing another time.
‘Pride? Sure, what’s Mark doing going to that? Isn’t that for the gays?’
In the restaurant, Bernadette is looking around at Scotty’s many eccentric decorations with an air of wonder on her face. ‘Ah, this place is great. Will we sit by the window?’
‘That sounds lovely, Granny.’
As they settle into their seats, Joanne fixes her eyes upon Sarah. ‘Pride?’ she remarks brusquely. ‘Sure, what’s Mark doing going to that? Isn’t that for the gays?’
‘Oh, he … um…’ For a fraction of a second, Sarah hesitates – wondering whether she should make up some kind of cover story – but quickly dismisses the idea. Why should she lie? She isn’t ashamed of Mark’s orientation. Yes, she had harboured insecurities about it at first, worrying that he would find other people more attractive than her, but they are long gone. She may once have been fearful, but she was never ashamed. She will take her cue from Mark himself: she will state the truth without apologising, making a big deal out of it, or turning it into a topic for debate or discussion. ‘He’s bisexual, Joanne.’
Just then, a waiter approaches the table with their menus, and she seizes this opportunity to change the subject. ‘Oh good, here are the menus!’
‘Thanks very much,’ Lynnette says to the waiter.
‘That’s no problem, madam. I’ll be back to take your order in a few minutes. Can I get you anything to drink?’
The women agree that a jug of water is all they need for now, and the waiter smiles and departs. Lynnette turns to her daughter.
‘Now Sarah, love, what do you recommend? You’ve been here before, haven’t you?’
‘I love their chocolate fudge cake. It’s amazing.’
Joanne keeps glancing quizzically at her, and Sarah knows – she just knows – that she is trying to decide whether or not to launch into some self-righteous rant about Mark. Her stomach lurches uncomfortably.
‘Chocolate fudge cake?’ Bernadette gasps enthusiastically. ‘Ooh. I’ll have to save room for that at dessert, though I really can’t afford to be getting any fatter’ – she cackles at this – ‘but what should I have before that?’
‘The tomato soup is great. They put three different herbs into it: basil, thyme, and oregano, as far as I know. And a few different kinds of spice as well.’
Sarah can see, out of the corner of her eye, that Joanne is still staring at her. Oh, crap. It’s all very well to be high-minded and honest in theory, but when it comes to people like Joanne … she should have known better. She should have said something vague about Mark having friends at the meeting, or something along those lines, though even that might have sounded suspicious. She is grateful that her mother and Bernadette have taken the news in their stride and haven’t commented on it – hopefully Joanne will follow suit and keep whatever misgivings she may have to herself.
‘What do you think of the raspberry scones, Sarah?’ Bernadette asks her. ‘I know I said I’d have the cake for dessert, but looking at those scones … my God, they look nice. I’m a bit torn…’
‘Oh, I actually haven’t had them, Granny. I don’t know what they’re like.’
‘Hmm. Ah sure, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. What am I like? Drooling over desserts when I should be thinking about my main course! No wonder my doctor’s patience is worn thin, dealing with me.’
‘Any idea what you want, Sarah?’ Lynette asks her.
‘Oh, I’ll definitely get that soup as a starter. Still not sure about my main course…’
The waiter briefly returns with a small bread basket and a jug of water. As Lynnette begins pouring water into everyone’s glasses, Joanne clears her throat.
Please don’t make some awful comment, please don’t make some awful comment…
Sarah tries to telepathically beam this message into her aunt’s head as she reaches for the bread basket. ‘So! This bread! It’s really good. I don’t want to eat too much of it – it’ll ruin my appetite – but I do like a bit of restaurant bread before my dinner, I have to say.’ She grabs a knife and begins to cut open one of the rolls.
‘Are you sure you want to be involved with this young man, Sarah?’
There it is. Sarah feels as though a lead weight has been dropped into her stomach. Whatever else Joanne has to say can’t be good.
‘Joanne…’ Lynnette lowers her menu and glares pointedly at her sister.
‘Ah now, Lynnette, I have Sarah’s best interests at heart. We all do. I’m just concerned about this man and I want to know if she –’
‘Joanne, come on. Let’s just have a nice dinner,’ Bernadette mutters, to no avail. Joanne completely ignores her, and instead leans further across the table towards Sarah, determined to emphasise her point.
‘Sarah, I hope you understand that there are … certain risks involved with this new relationship. Risks that wouldn’t be there if you were going out with a normal man.’
‘A “normal” man?’ Lynnette splutters.
Joanne makes an impatient shushing motion in Lynnette’s direction, without once looking away from Sarah. ‘Now, I know HIV isn’t the big killer it used to be, but even so, it’s no laughing matter, and Sarah, if you’re going to be involved with a man who is … well, at risk in that way, that is something you need to be aware of.’
‘I swear to God, Joanne…’
‘Well, there’s a reason they can’t donate blood, that’s all I’m saying. I’m not trying to offend anyone here, I’m just stating the facts. And Sarah won’t be able to donate anymore either. They don’t let women give blood for a year after they’ve … well … been intimate with a man who –’
‘He’s not going “back into the closet” by being with me.’
‘Ah, that policy is ridiculous,’ Lynnette scoffs. ‘Doesn’t every donation have to be screened for diseases before they allow it to be used? And don’t they have no problem whatsoever accepting blood from straight men who go around sleeping with different women every other night? Pure homophobia, that’s all it is.’
Joanne glances angrily at her. ‘I’m certainly not homophobic, if that’s what you’re suggesting. I voted yes in that referendum a while back. Look, Sarah, I’m only telling you this for your own good. I just think: if a man is gay, great – let him go and find another man. I have absolutely no issue with that. You know I’m fond of that André friend you have. I think it’s sad, to be honest, that this new boyfriend of yours is going back into the closet and you’ll be the one who ends up getting hurt by that, at the end of the day.’
‘He isn’t gay, Joanne, he’s bisexual. He’s not going “back into the closet” by being with me.’ Sarah’s voice cracks as she says this. She woke up this morning thrilled about her day with Mark, excited to be referring to him as her boyfriend at long last, joyously anticipating their cinema trip tonight … and now Joanne’s awful words have torn it all away. She is on the verge of bursting into tears.
‘Ah, I don’t believe in that. People are either gay or straight, at the end of the day.’
‘This is outrageous, Joanne,’ Lynnette fumes. ‘You wouldn’t dare say one word of this to that poor boy’s face. I know damn well you wouldn’t.’
Once again, Joanne ignores her and continues to stare at Sarah. ‘Do you not worry about him running off with a man?’
‘Because he’s a good person,’ Sarah replies curtly, ‘and I trust him. End of story.’
Joanne bristles at her tone. ‘There’s no need to be rude about this, Sarah. All I’m saying is, I wouldn’t be comfortable getting involved with any man who had a history with other men. I just have to be honest about that.’
‘No,’ Sarah snaps. She can feel tears welling up in her eyes. ‘You don’t have to be anything at all, actually, because I never asked for your opinion.’ She pushes her seat away from the table and gets to her feet. ‘I’m going to the bathroom.’
As she begins to stride to the other end of the restaurant, she hears her mother snarl: ‘You know what, Joanne, I don’t see any men queuing up around the block to get involved with you. Mammy, I’m so sorry, I’ll be back in a minute…’
A few seconds later – ignoring her sister’s indignant squawks – Lynnette has raced across the restaurant to be by her daughter’s side.
‘Sarah! Sarah, love, are you alright?’
‘No.’ Almost blinded by her tears, Sarah runs down the corridor that leads to the bathrooms.
Couple walking down the street: Stocksy
Woman reading a menu: Rand