Ireland's premier fiction and poetry magazine since 2002

Fiction and poetry




The Grind

Caroline Graham

I ring the doorbell and wait. Mulcahy’s voice is bellowing around inside in the hall, shouting at some misfortune. That Lithuanian cleaner probably.

I glance over my shoulder. Still time to make a run for it. Down the path, jump the gate, round the corner and away. But where will that get me? No, got to keep the head. My one shot at making things right, I remind myself.

By the time she opens the door, her normal-person face is in place. Our eyes meet briefly on almost the same level.

‘Come in, Darren.’

I step up into the hall and she shrinks back down to my shoulder level.

‘That schoolbag of yours looks fierce heavy,’ she says with a flurry of blinking behind her glasses.

‘Yeah, just the books.’

‘And just as well you’re such a fine, strong fellow.’ Off she goes with that screechy laugh of hers. My fists clench.

We go into her front room and I hand over Dad’s money. She peeps inside the crumpled envelope before lodging it deep in her handbag. Upstairs the drone of the hoover kicks off. Dad always says she has it all worked out; my one-hour grind pays for three hours cleaning and the taxman’s none the wiser.

As soon as we sit down, she starts. ‘And how are you this week?’ She’s all smiles but I can see the hawkish look in the eyes. Circling, ready to pick at last week’s sore. ‘Feeling better?’

‘Fine. Thanks.’

‘That’s great,’ she says, but I sense her disappointment.

The room goes quiet. I flick a low glance in her direction. ‘Just worried about my French exam.’

 ‘I see.’ She pauses long enough for a good gawk at me. ‘Your oral is creeping up, so let’s start with un peu de conversation.’

The last thing I need is more of what she calls conversation. Yet here she is with her ‘Où habitez-vous?’, as if I haven’t already given her the dimensions of every room in our house, the colour of the en suite tiles, the name of my uncle’s new girlfriend and the cost of the caterer for Izzy’s communion. My heartbeat’s beginning to rev up. I have to block her from going down the interrogation track again. But still I’m not ready to say my bit. Too early in the hour, I tell myself. ‘Could you do some grammar with me instead, Miss?’

‘Miss! What’s with the Miss?’ Her eyes are jigging around in her head, like she’s all surprised. ‘Didn’t we agree you could call me Aideen during these lessons?’

‘Yeah. Sorry. It’s just I’m having difficulty with that subjunctive thing.’

‘The sub-junc-tive?’ She pronounces each syllable slowly, then waits as if the signal reception in her brain is on a break. ‘Okay. If you need to focus on it for school.’

‘Could you explain it in English? The rules, like. I can’t figure them out.’

‘You’re not the only student to have problems with the subjunctive.’ Then away she goes again as if she’s cracked a real joke. I swear I’m allergic to that cackle of hers.

Off come the glasses and she begins polishing them with the corner of her cardigan. ‘It’s to do with wanting, wishing, obligation, necessity, doubt ...’ She’s rhyming them off but I can see her eyes are connected to some other activity in her brain. And then the list trails off, the wire rectangles are in place again and I’m back under scrutiny.

‘You seem very tense today, Darren.’ She isn’t going to let up.

Her hand creeps across to trap mine flat against the table. ‘Remember what I told you when we had our little chat last week. You can always talk to me.’

I keep looking down at my books but I can feel her eyes drilling into me.

God, she gives me the shivers. What was I thinking of that last time? My cheeks burn with the memory. How could one stupid question in a torrent of others smash through all my defences? Qu’est-ce votre père a fait le weekend dernier? Any random answer would have done. Il a regardé la télévision or il est allé au match de rugby or some other old passé composé reliable. But no. Even Mulcahy was caught unawares by my spectacular meltdown. She recovered well though. Out of the traps quickly with her questions. En anglais, of course, in case she’d miss anything. If it weren’t for Jimmy Deasey arriving early for his own grind, who knows what other juicy details I might have fed her.

Having to face Mum’s beaming face later that afternoon somehow made it worse. ‘Guess who’s inside in front of the TV? Go in and watch the match with him while I get the dinner on.’ And not knowing where to park the memory of the afternoon’s emotion as Dad grinned and slapped me on the shoulder. ‘How’s the man? How’s that grind going? Still getting value out of that Mulcahy one? Can’t have you wasting my good money, can we?’

Here I am, a week later, still fumbling to get my story right. How can I take back what I told Miss Mulcahy in confidence? Or the tears she witnessed? How can I tell the likes of her that Dad isn’t such a bad guy? That Mum just overreacted, that he always intended coming home. A man needs a break once in a while.

I know I have to say something. My one chance. And there’s still some hope, I remind myself. A good gulp of breath and I start. ‘You remember that thing I told you last week ... about my dad?’

Her face lights up like a starving woman who’s just been shown a plate of sizzling sausages. ‘Of course I remember. I was so glad you felt you could confide in me.’ It’s all she can do to stop herself licking her lips.

‘The thing is, it wasn’t true.’

‘Not true?’ Her eyes withdraw into slits. ‘What wasn’t true?’

‘I made it all up.’

‘But you ...’ She stops, puts her head to the side and smiles out the corner of her mouth. ‘Ah, Darren, there’s no need to be embarrassed.’

‘I’m telling you, it was all lies.’ My voice is high and wobbly but at least I’ve the tears still in check. ‘I’ve been feeling terrible about it all week.’

‘Lies?’ She makes a clicky sound as she swallows. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yeah. Certain. I’m really sorry, Miss. I don’t know what got into me.’

I watch as her eyes flick around to various points in the room: the ceiling, the furry cushions, the photo of herself wrapped around some tosser in a Galway jersey. Her top teeth begin to scrape lipstick from the corners of her lower lip. First one side, then the other. The eyes return to meet mine with a hard, inescapable stare and with it comes the sharpness that’s been missing from her voice for weeks. I know immediately I’ve seen the last of the call-me-Aideen personality.

‘I’m absolutely shocked. What were you thinking of, Darren? What would your parents say if they knew what you said about them? It’s bad enough telling me lies but did you even think of your father’s reputation? Or what people would say about that Mrs Quinn?’

My silence is met by another volley. ‘Have you any idea what a stupid thing you’ve done? The whole town could have this story by now. And it will be all your fault. Don’t you realise that once you’ve told a lie, it’s almost impossible to replace it with the truth?’

‘But, Miss, you’re the only person I told. And you promised it wouldn’t go outside this room.’

For one brief moment, the power of my truth wobbles in the air. But as I try to match her long, silent glare, I find my eyes forced back down towards the books. I keep telling myself I have her snookered, but my heart refuses to listen. That blank stare tells me it’s too late and I can only wonder how many have the inside story of our family.

My head is flooded with images of her salivating at each retelling: ‘Sure the poor lad was so upset he couldn’t control the tears.’ I see them in huddles of two and three in kitchens around the town, in hairdressers, in Centra or up at the gym, flaunting their pretend sympathy while sharpening their long memories. Not one of them with Mum’s tolerance for Dad’s excuses. And it’s only a matter of time before one big-mouthed parent ensures it goes viral in the school.

Miss Mulcahy’s stare fades. She shrugs. ‘I suggest we get back to the subjunctive.’ She begins writing sentences on a sheet of paper, underlining words, pointing at them, her voice merging with the hoover.

All those fears that have haunted me for the last week elbow their way into my head again. Me sitting in the same classroom as Jason Quinn, knowing we’re forever linked in every other lad’s mind. Togging on and off in the same dressing room, the reason his mother is no longer at home like a bad stench hanging over us. Passing the ball to him at some crucial moment in a match, knowing full well what the real commentary will be. And Mum standing alone on the sideline, forcing herself to smile.

‘Il est essential que; il est important que ...’ The voice across the table suddenly breaks off from the shrill list. ‘Are you listening to me, Darren?’

But my attention is fixed on the short path outside the window, dreading what lies beyond it and praying for Jimmy Deasey to arrive early.

Caroline Graham’s short fiction has been published in Crannóg, Revival, Boyne Berries and various anthologies. She has also published non-fiction and academic articles and has co-edited two books. She is a co-founder of the Regional Writing Centre at the University of Limerick and was Chair of the Literature and Writing Committee for Limerick City of Culture 2014. She is currently a member of a peer critique group at the Limerick Writers’ Centre and a professional member of the Irish Writers’ Centre, including the WORD forum.