Synopsis: When Chris's old friend Bernie turns up, all the way from sunny Australia, she welcomes her with open arms. But that's before Bernie steals her husband, Paul. Now she must rebuild her life.
Paul, on the other hand, is all set for a new start with Bernie. Until, that is, he discovers what she's been hiding from him.
Meanwhile Karen has her own troubles. She's always disguised her low self-esteem behind a lively personality. But when she suspects her husband Tony of having an affair, her world falls apart. In fact, happily married father-of-two Tony feels his life is complete. It's only when Shona appears on the scene that Tony is forced to come clean about his shameful past.
It's amazing what people can keep hidden from those closest to them.
“I’m warning you, Chris, that Bernie Sweeney’s up to something,” said Karen Magill, throwing the comment down on the distressed oak table in her sister’s kitchen like a gauntlet. She put the rim of a large wineglass to her red lips, wet them with the honey-coloured liquid and stared at her younger sister, waiting for a reaction.
“Oh Karen, don’t be so dramatic,” said Chris, trying not to rise to the bait. “She’s only coming to Ireland for a long holiday. What’s so sinister about that?”
“I’ll tell you what’s sinister,” said Karen, lifting her right arm to stab the air, the silver charms on her bracelet jangling like bells. She wore a fashionable slit-sleeve top in a rich royal blue that did not flatter her rather plump upper arms, but nevertheless she cut a glamorous figure with her long black suede skirt, wide studded belt and tasteful costume jewellery. Her hair was expertly highlighted and her face well made up.
“You’ve hardly heard from her since you both left school nearly twenty years ago,” continued Karen, “and suddenly she’s on the phone and e-mailing you like you’re long-lost buddies. And the next thing she’s inviting herself to stay in your home for a month.”
“So what? She’s coming all the way from Australia and she needs somewhere to stay,” said Chris defensively, as the thought crept into her mind that maybe, just maybe, Karen was right. Maybe Bernie was just using her. “Anyway, she didn’t invite herself. I asked her,” she added firmly, deciding to dismiss her sister’s concerns.
She preferred to think that Bernie was looking up her old school pal for all the right reasons – like wanting to rekindle their friendship, to reminisce about their shared past growing up in Ballyfergus, their first clumsy forays into drink and discovering the opposite sex. Always the Plain Jane at school, the clever swot few noticed, Chris wanted to believe that Bernie had got in touch because she actually liked her . . .
Suddenly from upstairs came the pounding of music – the Arctic Monkeys probably. Not that Chris would know their music from any other racket but, according to sixteen-year-old Finn, they were the coolest band on earth. His room was directly above the kitchen and, in spite of Castlerock’s thick one-hundred-year-old walls, the music still penetrated every room in the house. Chris felt a headache coming on and briefly pressed the middle of her brow with the index finger on her right hand.
“If he doesn’t turn off that flippin’ music . . .” she began, and placed both palms on the table as she prepared to rise from her seat.
Just then the kitchen door burst open and Chris’s eldest child, Hannah, came in. She was wearing tiny earphones in her ears, connected to an I-pod clipped to her low-slung slouch jeans. She wore several messy layers of clothes and Chris wished she would make more of her slim figure and pretty oval-shaped face which was encased in a thick layer of heavy make-up, her eyes blackened with kohl. It was hard to believe that, underneath all that muck, they were practically mirror images of each other. Hannah’s curly auburn hair – which she inherited from her mother along with her green eyes – was scrunched up into a fuzzy bush at the top of her head and a diamond stud glistened menacingly in her delicate right nostril.
She opened the fridge without so much as a glance in the direction of the two women and Chris said, “Hannah.”
“Hannah!” she said again in a loud voice.
“Uhh?” said Hannah, removing the plug from her right ear and frowning a little at her mother.
“It would be polite to say hello to your Auntie Karen,” said Chris, more sarcastically than she’d intended. As soon as she’d said it she hated herself. She sounded just like her own mum and she’d always sworn she would never turn into her mother. Nowadays, it seemed, she was doing just that.
“Oh, hi, Karen,” said Hannah, sounding like the act of opening her mouth to speak required enormous effort.
“Hi, Han,” said Karen, apparently not in the least put out by the omission of ‘Auntie’ and the lack of respect this implied to Chris. “What’re you up to?”
“Oh, just chilling with the girls. Watching TV,” said Hannah, with a nonchalant toss of her head in the direction of the doorway. The sound of the TV could be heard from the family room along the hall.
“Hannah, could you do me a favour, please?” said Chris. “Could you tell that brother of yours to turn down the music or I’ll come up and turn it off.”
“I’ll tell him,” sighed Hannah, “but it won’t do any good. He’s showing off in front of his mates. Anyway, he never listens to me.”
Hannah left the room with a clutch of probiotic drinks in one hand and a multipack of cheese and onion crisps in the other – the good thereby cancelling out the bad – at least that was Hannah’s skewed philosophy on healthy eating.
Chris slumped back in her chair. “I don’t know which is worse – him,” she said, raising her eyes to the ceiling, “or her,” she glanced at the door through which Hannah had just exited. She fingered the stem of the wineglass in front of her and thought fleetingly of how, in spite of three comfortable reception rooms to choose from, she always ended up sitting around the kitchen table drinking tea or more often, given her husband Paul’s extensive and discerning cellar, very good wine. And the comfortably furnished lounge, family room and snug were, more often than not, occupied by gangly teenagers.
But the welcoming kitchen with its burr oak units, retro Smeg fridge-freezer and cream Britannia range cooker really was the heart of this home and the place where Chris felt most comfortable. In the corner by the bay window was an old squishy armchair in which she liked to curl up with a favourite book – when she got the chance – for Murphy the Border Terrier puppy had claimed it as his own and Chris usually didn’t have the heart to oust him. He was in it now on his back fast asleep, exhausted from tearing round the garden all afternoon. His little fat belly, pink under straw-coloured hair, rose and fell gently with every breath.
The sound of the music miraculously quietened and Chris looked at the ceiling.
Karen put her hand, two fingers of which sported over-sized sparkly rings, on Chris’s arm. “The day’ll come when they’ve both left home and the house’ll be as quiet as a morgue,” she observed, sounding like a sage – a role, as the elder sister, she often played.
“And,” Karen went on, ignoring the interruption, “you’ll remember these days and wish them back again.”
Chris took a long drink from the glass in front of her and said crisply, “I find that hard to believe.”
Karen tutted, almost inaudibly, and said, “What is wrong with you, Chris? Did you get out the wrong side of bed this morning?”
“I’m sorry,” said Chris, letting go of a little of the tension that had been building up all day. “I just feel a little bit stressed out at the moment. I didn’t appreciate how involved and time-consuming this campaign against Tesda supermarket was going to be, and work’s crazy with Bob’s retirement coming up and the new management team in place from Monday. I don’t know what to expect. And there’s Murphy, of course,” she added, glancing at the grizzly little body in the corner and smiling involuntarily. “I love him to bits but he’s still a fair bit of work. I can’t leave him alone for a minute or he’s chewing everything.”
“And now you’ve got Bernie Sweeney arriving in just a few days.”
“Well, much as I’m looking forward to seeing her, yes, I suppose that is added pressure.”
“Your problem, Chris,” said Karen, leaning her plump arm on the table while she took a deep slug of wine, “is that you don’t know how to say ‘no’.”
“But how could I?” said Chris, knowing full well that Karen was right but not willing to admit it. She was constantly under pressure, most of it self-imposed as the result of taking on board more than she could reasonably handle. She wasn’t very good at putting herself first. But it was more, much more, than that. She kept herself busy to keep the melancholy, that nipped at her well-shod heels like an untrained puppy, at bay. It had been with her for a long time, years rather than months, and sometimes it threatened to consume her. And because she wasn’t entirely sure what the cause of that unhappiness was, she preferred not to dwell on it.
So now she did as she always did – she pushed those gloomy thoughts to the back of her mind and said, “The woman’s only coming halfway round the world to see me. I couldn’t just put her out on the street, now could I?”
“Hmm, I suppose not,” said Karen, and she pursed her lips and stared at Chris for a few moments. “But what I can’t understand is why she can’t stay with one of her brothers?”
“I’m not sure. She hinted in an e-mail that they weren’t on good terms and I didn’t like to pry. She said that if it was okay and it wasn’t too much bother, she’d rather stay with me.”
“And what’s wrong with the Marine Hotel?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Karen. I imagine it would be too expensive to stay in a hotel for a month.” She paused then and added, “You never did like Bernie Sweeney, did you?”
“Well, you can hardly blame me. She stole my boyfriend,” Karen said flatly and folded her arms across her chest.
“What?” said Chris and then she laughed. She ran the fingers of her right hand through her thick hair and said, “Do you mean Kenny Maguire? Sure you only went out with him for a couple of weeks. You’re not still bitter about that, are you?”
“No, I’m not bitter,” said Karen evenly, “but it just goes to show you the sort of person she is. Not to be trusted. And she’d rather freeload off you and Paul than pay her way.”
“Now, Karen,” said Chris, truly stung, “I don’t think you’re being fair. Bernie is my oldest and dearest friend.”
“Well, she was. And just because we’ve drifted apart over the last few years doesn’t mean that we’re not still friends. You know what it’s like when you have a family. You don’t have the time to keep up with everyone and with Bernie never marrying or having children, I guess we didn’t have much in common for a while.”
“You know what the trouble is with you?” said Karen, not unkindly, without pausing for an answer. “It’s that you’re always so determined to find the good in people.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing really,” said Karen after a thoughtful pause. “Except that sometimes you’re too trusting. People take advantage of you.” Then she brightened suddenly and said, “Though I suppose it’s miles better than being like me. I’m too cynical. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
“Well, I don’t know if being as naïve as I am is a good thing either.”
“I didn’t say you were naïve. Sure you’re an intelligent woman and a fully qualified solicitor.”
“Being bright doesn’t make you street-wise. And I’m as naïve as a forty-year-old wife and mother can be. I know I am, especially when it comes to judging people,” she said wryly. “That’s why I chose to specialise in property conveyancing! If truth be told, I prefer dealing with bricks and mortar than people.”
“Oh, but you’re great with clients! They love you.”
“Maybe. But I’m at my most comfortable dealing with hard facts and figures rather than complex and sometimes unfathomable human emotions. I guess, basically, I don’t understand people very well.” Chris sighed, looking at the base of her wineglass.
“I think you’re being a little hard on yourself,” said Karen kindly.
Chris smiled. Then suddenly she thought of her husband Paul and the smile fell from her face. Was her unhappiness a cause of their relationship problems or was it, rather, a symptom of a marriage gone stale? Was it her lack of – of understanding, of empathy, that had caused the gulf between them? It was as though they were on the opposite sides of a huge chasm, too wide to enable them to communicate meaningfully with each other. So much of their conversations these days revolved around trivia. She couldn’t remember the last time they talked about how much they loved each other or showed each other true kindness. They seemed to be locked into a pattern of terse comments and low-level bickering. But what was to be done about it? How could she repair that gulf? She didn’t know how.
“Chris?” said Karen, bringing Chris out of her reverie. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” she said, forcing a bright smile, too reserved – or was it proud? – to confide these dark thoughts even to her sister.
There was a brief silence and then Karen asked, “And how does Paul feel about Bernie coming to stay?”
“Oh, you know Paul,” said Chris lightly. “He’s so easygoing he doesn’t mind at all. He loves people popping in and coming to stay and the house always being full of kids. Drives me mad.”
“It’s good though, him being like that. It means the kids want to bring their friends home. And they’re better here where at least you know what they’re up to.”
“Yes, you’re absolutely right, Karen. And I do like it too – most of the time anyway.”
“Can’t see Tony being so accommodating when our two are grown,” said Karen thoughtfully, referring to her son Jack, who had just turned seven, and four-year-old Chloe.
“Mmm. I imagine it would be a bit like a busman’s holiday,” observed Chris of her brother-in-law, who was headmaster of St Patrick’s Secondary School. “Having spent all day with teenage kids he’ll hardly want them sitting round his house all evening too!”
Noticing that her sister’s glass was nearly empty, Chris lifted the bottle of wine out of the cooler and held the neck over Karen’s glass.
Karen put her hand over the rim, glanced at the kitchen wall clock, and said rather half-heartedly, “No more for me, thanks. I’d better not.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well . . . Oh, go on then. I can always get a taxi.”
“I’m sure Paul will run you home when he gets in.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s on a night out – it’s Sol Glover’s retirement do.”
“Oh, he’s retiring at last, is he?”
“Not before time, I hear,” said Chris. “He was starting to make mistakes. Prescribed some poor old dear the wrong tablets for high blood pressure. If the pharmacist hadn’t noticed, well, God knows what might have happened. Anyway, you know Paul never drinks at these things. He hates cheap wine. So I’m sure he’ll run you home.”
“That’d be great. I’ll need to watch though,” said Karen, taking a sip from her glass. “I’ll have to wake up early. Tony’s got a school football match tomorrow morning at Tillysburn Park in Belfast.”
Chris topped up her own glass and said, “I didn’t know Tony had to go to football matches on Saturdays. Isn’t that the games teacher’s role?”
“It is, but this year the under-sixteens have done really well. They’re in the final of the Senior Cup and Tony’s got to show face. So an early start tomorrow. And of course there’s my little darlings too.”
“How are they?” said Chris, picturing with fondness her gorgeous little niece and nephew. It was hard sometimes to believe that her two surly and uncommunicative teenagers were once so innocent and adorable. She loved them to bits of course but the cuteness of childhood had long worn off. She couldn’t help but long for those days when they placed her on a pedestal and their world revolved around her. How precious those times had been.
“Oh, they’re great. It’s just that they don’t know the meaning of the words ‘lie in’. Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Karen was suddenly animated, “Jack lost his first tooth last night at teatime.”
“The wee soul! That tooth’s been wobbly for ages, hasn’t it?” laughed Chris. “He told me about it weeks ago.”
Karen nodded. “Well, he was just sitting there and he put his hand out and there it was in his palm. Tiny as a seed pearl.”
“Did it bleed?”
“Oh, bless. Here,” said Chris and she delved into her handbag which happened to be slung over the back of the adjacent chair and pulled out a five-pound note. She pressed it into Karen’s hand and said, “Give that to him and tell him it’s from Auntie Chris’s Tooth Fairy.”
“That’s far too much, Chris!”
“No, it’s not,” tutted Chris, remembering the many kindnesses Karen had shown Hannah and Finn when they were little and she and Paul didn’t have the money they had now. They’d married whilst still at Queen’s University where Paul had studied Medicine and she Law – and Hannah came along not long afterwards. Karen had met Tony much later in life and hadn’t started her family until she was well into her thirties.
“He’s already had two pounds off Tony and me – sorry, the Tooth Fairy,” said Karen with a grin and then she added, “That’s the going rate for the first tooth, apparently, and one pound for each one thereafter.”
“That’s inflation for you. In our day it was ten pence, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right. Well, thank you very much, Chris. At this rate he’s going to have more money than me!”
“If he does as well as you, Karen, he’ll be doing all right.”
Karen raised her eyebrows noncommittally.
“How are things going at the nursery?” asked Chris. Karen was owner and manager of Wee Stars, one of Ballyfergus’s two private children’s nurseries.
“Good. I’ve finally put those staffing problems behind me and things are ticking over nicely. Yep,” she said, nodding, “It’s good.”
“So what’s your next project?”
Karen shrugged. “I don’t have one.”
“Don’t give me that,” said Chris good-humouredly. “You always have a project on the go, Karen. You’re never content with the status quo.”
Karen’s face went a little pink and she readjusted the belt around her waist.
“What?” said Chris, looking at her sister’s waistline. “What is it?”
“Promise you won’t tell anyone? And I mean anyone,” said Karen rather sternly.
“Of course. Cross my heart and hope to die,” said Chris, as the tingling thrill that only a shared intimacy can induce ran through her veins. She took a quick slug of wine and waited, wide-eyed, not knowing what to expect. Was Karen pregnant? Or had she decided to sell up, buy another nursery, change career? Nothing would surprise her about her dynamic sister.
“Well,” said Karen, “I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and my next project is going to be me.”
Chris screwed her face into a frown. “What d’you mean, ‘me’?”
“Precisely that. Me. Karen Susan Magill. Businesswoman, wife, mother.”
Chris waited for her sister to go on, not understanding.
“I want to change the way I am, Chris.”
“I don’t follow,” said Chris shaking her head.
“The way I look.”
“But why? You look great.”
“No, I don’t. I’m a mess. Look at my tummy,” she lowered her voice, glancing down at her lap. “It’s disgusting. My boobs are too big – I’m sure that’s the cause of my backache – and I hate these hooded eyes,” she touched the noticeable fold of skin over her left eye. “The thought of another summer having to show all my bits and pieces . . . it just doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“You’re not a rake, Karen,” said Chris interrupting, “but you’re hardly fat either. What size are you? A sixteen?”
“About that,” confirmed Karen miserably.
“Well, that’s not fat. You’re tall for a start and you dress so well –”
“Don’t say ‘for my figure’,” interrupted Karen.
“But you do. You always look great. I wish I was half as glamorous as you.”
“You don’t have to try as hard as me, Chris. I’m the one who inherited the ‘fat genes’. Anyway, being a little overweight doesn’t really bother me that much. It’s more the shape of me. No matter how much weight I lose, my breasts never seem to get any smaller and this – this apron of flab – there’s no other word for it,” she said, holding a ring of flesh around her tummy. “It only gets worse the slimmer I get.”
Chris regarded Karen carefully and said, “So what are you going to do about it? Go on another diet?”
“You know I’ve tried every diet from Atkins to the Zone and none of them work.”
“I know you’ve tried them, Karen,” said Chris gently, “but you never stick to one for long enough. You have to be prepared to change your eating habits forever. Not just for a few weeks.”
“Oh, don’t lecture me on something you know nothing about,” said Karen crossly and Chris stiffened. “I’ve already explained that losing weight isn’t really the issue.”
“Maybe I don’t know anything about the diets,” said Chris carefully, knitting the fingers of her hands together and leaning her elbows on the table, “but I do think that you’re . . . let me put it this way – you always appear to be looking for a quick fix.”
“I’m not looking for a quick fix,” said Karen sternly, “and I totally disagree with you about my dieting. I have followed diets religiously, some of them for months, and they've made no real difference to my tummy or my breasts. Whereas you can eat what you like and never put on weight.”
“Hmm,” said Chris, ignoring the last comment, not because it was true but because she didn’t want to be drawn into an argument. Changing subject she asked, “Have you ever thought it might be your thyroid? An underactive thyroid can cause weight gain.”
Karen sighed heavily and folded her arms across her ample chest. “I wish it was that simple. But I’ve been to the doctor and she’s checked me out for that – and a host of other possible conditions – and says there’s not a thing wrong with me.”
“So,” said Chris slowly, “if you’re not going to diet, what are you going to do?”
Karen looked over her shoulder at the kitchen door through which Hannah had exited as though expecting someone to burst through it at any moment. Then she turned her attention to the glass on the table, took a long drink of wine and set the glass down again. She stared at Chris, her left eyelid twitching involuntarily.
“What?” said Chris, her heartbeat quickening slightly. “What is it?”
“I’m thinking of having some cosmetic surgery.”
“Oh my God!” cried Chris as a raft of images hurtled through her brain. Images of the extreme TV makeovers she’d seen – the only experience she had of the business. True, she’d heard rumours about women in Ballyfergus who were reported to have had ‘work done’ but none of her friends or close acquaintances had. Or if they had, they weren’t telling her. She realised suddenly that this was something about which she was almost completely ignorant. Karen was looking at her but Chris didn’t know what to say. She’d always viewed those poor women on television as desperate, weak characters who believed the answer to all their problems lay in improving their appearance. She suddenly realised that she didn’t approve.
“Well,” said Karen, “is that all you have to say?”
“I . . . I . . . you’ve taken me by surprise, that’s all. I had no idea you felt that strongly . . . well, that’s not completely true, is it? I know you dislike some aspects of your physical appearance. But not enough to go this far.”
“You make it sound as though I’m threatening to boil bunnies. People have these operations every day.”
“Definitely a tummy tuck,” said Karen and Chris found her gaze drawn involuntarily to Karen’s stomach, “and a boob reduction. And maybe I’ll get something done about these eyelids,” she added, pointing to the slightly overhanging hood of skin above each eye.
“Sure, I have those too,” said Chris, touching her right eyelid. It was a feature they had both inherited from their mother. “They’re not that bad, Karen.” Though they were more pronounced in Karen’s case than in her own.
“In themselves, maybe they’re not but if I’m getting these other things done, I might as well go the whole hog and get everything done at the same time. If that’s possible.”
“I see,” said Chris and she bit her bottom lip.
“You don’t approve, do you?” said Karen rather miserably and Chris felt rotten.
“I just don’t think it’s worth exposing yourself to the risks, Karen,” she said, thankful for the angle that had just popped into her head. “These aren’t minor procedures. They’re serious operations. You’ll have to have a general anaesthetic, won’t you?”
Karen shrugged. “Yes.”
“That in itself carries big risks,” went on Chris. “Never mind the dangers of the surgery itself. And it might not turn out the way you expect it. You might be disappointed. It’s not as though you have some sort of horrible deformity or anything. I can understand why people want to, need to, have surgery under those circumstances. But you’re very attractive, Karen. And your personality is far more important in creating that attractiveness than your appearance ever will be.”
There was a long pause and then Karen said with a smile, “Is that the lecture over then?”
“Sorry,” said Chris and she smiled weakly, recognising her tendency to get on her high horse.
Karen leant forward and spoke quietly into Chris’s face. “Believe me, I’ve done loads of digging, Chris. I know the dangers. Haemorrhaging, haematoma, seroma, infection and the rarer complications like thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, necrosis.” She was ticking them off like a list on her fingers for Chris’s benefit, to prove that she’d done her research.
If Karen was trying to bamboozle Chris with medical terminology she was succeeding. She’d never heard some of those terms.
“Plus lots of unpleasant, but mostly temporary, side effects,” went on Karen, “and of course the danger of being disappointed with the results. But I think my expectations are realistic. I know this isn’t going to make me into Claudia Schiffer.”
“Okay, okay!” Chris raised her hands in the air in a gesture of surrender. “You’ve done your homework. Point taken.”
“Thank you,” said Karen and she gave a little satisfied sniff. Then she added, “So, if you don’t think I should go down the surgical route –”
“No, I don’t,” affirmed Chris quickly.
“Then what’s the alternative?”
Chris shook her head. “You just go on as you are. Looking great.”
Karen gave a snort of derision. “The thing is, Chris, you can’t convince me that I look great. I’m not happy with the way I look and that’s what matters. It’s how I feel about myself when I look in the mirror that counts, not what you – or other people – tell me. I’m the mother of two young children and I feel like I’m sixty. I don’t want people mistaking me for the granny at the school gates.”
“Don’t be daft. Of course they won’t.”
“They will, the rate I’m going,” said Karen flatly.
The antique kitchen wall clock struck the hour and Chris, stressed by the nature of the conversation, refilled their glasses to the top. Karen did not protest.
“Does Tony know about this?” asked Chris, as she set the wine bottle down carefully on the table.