Longlisted for Impac Award
Adopted as a baby, Vicky McCarthy’s curiosity about where she came from has finally got the better of her: she wants to trace her birth mother.
If that doesn’t cause friction enough, there’s a new face to contend with at work: Ed O’Neill, whom Vicky is convinced is being groomed for her job as manager of Dublin toyshop Toys Galore. Sal, Vicky’s go-getting best friend, thinks Ed is gorgeous, and that if Vicky doesn’t bag him, she will. But Vicky is going out with Marti, manager of an up-and-coming boy band, with a six-year-old son and complications of his own...
When Sal tells you to ‘effing hurry up’, you do. Throwing my case onto her back seat, I leapt into the passenger seat and fastened my belt.
‘I’ve circled the block twice,’ Sal moaned, shoving her blonde hair behind her ear and glaring out at the rain that had just started to fall. ‘Where the hell were you?’
‘It’s Christmas Eve, Sal,’ I said mildly, unwrapping some chocolates I’d been saving for the journey. ‘I work in a toy shop.’
‘Toy shops sell toys?’ I arched my eyebrows. ‘Christmas is all about toys.’
‘Yeah?’ Sal made a face. ‘I thought it was about boozing and listening to your rellies singing stupid songs.’
‘Mmmm.’ Sal has this awful sceptical view of life. ‘D’you want some chocolate?’ I held out some Cadbury’s Roses to her.
Sal shook her head. ‘The tissue they’re wrapped in kind of spoils my appetite.’
‘I only wrapped them in tissue to stop them getting lost in my bag,’ I said, exasperated. ‘They’re perfectly safe.’
She didn’t bother to reply. I popped a caramel one into my mouth and followed it up with a coffee flavour.
‘Why do you always eat the minute you get into a car?’ Sal asked, sounding annoyed for some reason. ‘I mean, can you not wait until later? We’ve a four-hour journey ahead, you know.’
‘I have crisps for later.’ I pulled out a six-pack of Tayto. Then, in case she thought I was a right pig, I explained, ‘Bridie and I had a little party for the kids that came into the shop today – you know, a few lollies and crisps and stuff. So this is what’s left.’
‘So why didn’t Bridie take them home?’ Sal asked, braking hard and throwing us both forward. ‘Bloody traffic. Jesus!’
‘Bridie would never eat six packets of crisps,’ I quoted Bridie.
‘But she’d use them over Christmas?’
‘Dunno.’ I didn’t know. Bridie never talked about her family or friends or anything.
‘Yeah, well, you should have left them there,’ Sal remarked. ‘You’re eating too much. I think you’ve put on weight.’
‘Thanks.’ She was in a bad mood for some reason.
‘You always put on weight before you go home,’ Sal continued. ‘Are you afraid they won’t think you’re eating properly up in Dublin if you don’t?’
‘Don’t be stupid.’ Now I was getting in a bad mood. Maybe because she was edging too close to the bone. I did tend to eat a lot just before I went home. I ate a lot before my leaving cert too. And before I ditched college.
I ate when something made me uneasy.
‘She’s home, she’s home,’ she yelled out. I guessed she was telling my dad. He soon appeared at the front door, paper in hand, pipe in mouth, and stood beaming at the two of us as we made our way towards him. Another hug from him. ‘Welcome home!’ He patted my back. ‘And how’s the toy shop manager today?’
They were inordinately proud of me. I used to be ‘The Student’ before I flunked out of college, then I became ‘The Traveller’ for the five years I backpacked about the world, then ‘The Flower Girl’ for my flower shop job, then ‘The Travel Agent’ – and now I was ‘The Manager’.
‘Well?’ Dad asked, smiling away at me.
‘Fine,’ I muttered.
‘Will you let the girl breathe.’ My mother pushed him out of our way as we entered the hallway. She was breathless from her run to meet me. ‘Let her get a cuppa and some food into her before you start quizzing her.’
It was always the same. The dinner, the chat. I was escorted by both of them into the big, stone farmhouse kitchen. Mam pulled out a chair for me at the wooden table and before I had a chance to adjust my seat, a huge slush pile of stew was ladled onto a large plate and slapped down in front of me.
‘I’ll have some of that.’ Dad winked at me as if asking for some food was a risky business.
Mam, only too happy to oblige, gave him even more than she’d given me and made a production of laying it in front of him.
‘Ta.’ Dad slapped his stomach and began to eat.
Mam pulled down a warm plate from over the range for herself and soon the three of us were eating in silence.
I never talked much in the house. To be honest, ever since I was a kid, I’ve been sort of scared by it. And it’s not because it’s old and creaky, though that may have something to do with it, it’s more because everything about the house is so HUGE. And I mean everything. From the granite stonework on the outside walls to the flags on the kitchen floor. Even the table I’d sat at for years looked as if it was hewn from an enormous oak. Mam and Dad suited the house. They looked as if they’d been born out of the masonry, both of them tall and brawny and sort of ageless, while I, small and skinny, am like some kind of freak compared to everything around me. I stand out, you know. But in the wrong sort of way.
I’ve always stood out in the wrong sort of way from the rest of the McCarthy clan. So it was a relief when at twelve I found out that I was adopted. Don’t get me wrong; it was an awful shock, but a relief as well. At least I had a reason for feeling that I was always the odd person out – and it wasn’t just in the family, it was everywhere. In school, with friends, even in crowds at gigs I’ve always felt apart somewhat, like I’m not quite anchored.
Stew finished, Mam cleared the table and an enormous strawberry cheesecake was brought from the fridge and dumped in front of me. ‘Your favourite.’ She smiled delightedly at me. ‘I made it specially.’
‘Ta.’ Oh God, I didn’t much like cheesecake. I hadn’t ever liked it really. But when I’d returned from my travels, Mam had attempted to make something a bit different. Something to show me that fancy cuisine could be made anywhere, not just in ‘foreign hot places where the women don’t even cover themselves up properly’. And I’d raved over the cheesecake – well, I would, wouldn’t I, when I’d lived on pennies for a whole month and eaten bits of stale bread to keep me going? A bit like I did now, actually.
Anyway, ever since then, Mam has made me a cheesecake and she and Dad eat a small portion each, protesting that fancy food brings on their indigestion while I gamely shove a quarter or so into me to keep them happy.
‘Daddy?’ Mam asked, knife poised. ‘Would you like a piece?’
Dad rubbed his stomach and eyed the cake suspiciously. ‘Oooh, I dunno. Brings on a lot of wind, I find.’
‘I find that too,’ Mam said, setting down the knife. ‘It repeats on a body.’
‘Belching and farting, that’s what happens when you eat strange food. No,’ Dad waved his hand about, ‘none for me, thanks.’
‘I won’t either,’ Mam said.
Both of them looked at me.
So now, I was expected to eat something that made them belch and fart? ‘A small piece,’ I murmured.
‘A small piece,’ Mam scoffed. ‘When was ever anything small in this house? You’ll have a piece to fill you up, so you will.’ With that she hacked off at least half of the bloody cake and offered it to me.
They watched while I cut into it. They watched as the first piece went into my mouth. They watched as I swallowed. I swear, if they could have seen me digest it, they would have. ‘Gorgeous,’ I pronounced.
Mam laughed and clapped her hands. Dad lay back in his chair and lit his pipe. ‘I think we’ll have a cup of tea, Evelyn, and some mince pies.’
Mam jumped up like a jackrabbit to meet his request.
Tea was laid before him. Tea was put before me.
A huge plate of mince pies and a big bowl of cream were laid on the table and while they ate that, I did a Bruce Bogtrotter on the cake.
Tea over, we all retired to the dining room.
This was the part where I had to entertain them with all I’d done since the last time I’d been down. No matter what it was, they thought it was wonderful. It was embarrassing how much they loved me. It poured out of them with every look, every gesture, every smile.
I hadn’t much to tell them, which was a bit embarrassing seeing as I hadn’t been down in about four months. But Dad was still reeling over the fact that I was a manager. It didn’t matter that there was only Bridie and me in the shop, it was still an honour. A huge honour.
‘O’Neill hadn’t anyone else he could pick.’ I hated all this false praise. ‘There weren’t many in for the job.’
‘Mister O’Neill,’ Mam corrected hastily.
‘Mister O’Neill,’ I muttered.
‘He chose you,’ Dad said vigorously, ‘because you are so good.’
‘I don’t think—’
‘You’re exactly like your mother, too modest by half.’ Dad smiled fondly at Mam who flapped him away.
‘Tell her.’ Dad nodded at Mam.
Mam turned red. ‘Well, I—’
‘You’ll get a surprise when you hear this.’ Dad jabbed his pipe in my direction.
‘I entered the—’
‘This is good now,’ Dad nodded. A big beam. ‘Just you wait till you hear this.’
‘I was in the—’
‘It’s a good one, mind.’
‘She only went and won the parish flower show,’ Dad said loudly. He beamed at Mam who beamed back at him.
‘I did a winter bloom display,’ Mam said to me. ‘D’you remember?’
Vaguely. ‘Oh yeah.’
‘Well, first prize I got.’
‘And that’s not all, is it?’ Dad gave Mam a nudge. ‘Go on, tell her the rest.’
‘Well, Amanda Sweeney—’
‘This is the icing on the cake,’ Dad interrupted.
‘Amanda Sweeney was so impressed by the winter blooms that she asked your mother to do her daughter’s wedding in the summer.’
‘No!’ Now that was news. Amanda Sweeney was the parish snob, not to mention rich chick. ‘You’re doing her daughter’s wedding?’ I gawked at Mam. ‘You?’
‘There’s no need for that tone,’ Dad chastised me. ‘Your mother is well able for it, aren’t you, Evelyn? Go for it, I told her. Show those bloody Sweeneys.’
Mam laughed, flapped her arm at him. She always did that. Sometimes he caught it and they went all lovey-dovey on each other, which was a bit embarrassing.
‘Two wonderful women!’ Dad looked proudly at us. ‘What did I do to deserve such luck?’
In my case, I guess, he’d just forgotten to take his rose-tinted glasses off.