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Facades: A short story by Patricia Scanlan

Bill has been unemployed for 14 months, but how long can wife Izzy keep up appearances — especially with a Christmas visit from her high-flying friend looming

'You’re coming home for Christmas? Fantastic! We’ll have to get together. You’ll have to come over for a meal.'

Izzy Reynolds injected a note of false gaiety into her voice as she spoke to Mari Clancy, an old school friend who was ringing from Dubai. ‘Is Brett coming with you?’ ‘Er… no, not this year. Things are a bit crazy at work and he can’t take time off.’ Mari sounded glum.

‘Oh… poor Brett,’ Izzy sympathised, privately relieved that the wealthy consultant wouldn’t be around to patronise her and Bill with his boastful tales of life in the Emirates.

‘So, look, how about the day after Stephen’s Day? You know the way the diary fills up, and Mam will have me doing the rounds like nobody’s business,’ Mari said briskly.

‘I’ll be looking forward to it,’ Izzy lied, thinking that a visit from Mari was the last thing she needed. They talked for another while, swapping gossip and news and Izzy was glad it was Mari who had called. It must be costing a fortune but Mari was loaded and money wasn’t an issue for her. It never used to be an issue for her and Bill, either, she thought dolefully, replacing the receiver.

Later, in the kitchen, she found herself humming ‘My heart is low’. To her way of thinking, Only A Woman’s Heart was one of the greatest songs ever written for and about women. The writer of that song knew exactly what Izzy was feeling at that moment. Low, disheartened, dispirited, depressed and extremely agitated. She wiped her worktops vigorously. When Izzy was stressed she cleaned her worktops over and over again, lifting the bread bin and set of coffee, tea and sugar containers, annihilating any unfortunate crumb lurking in the vicinity. Today the worktops were getting a rigorous going-over, as were the fridge-freezer doors and the top of the cooker. It was funny, how she headed for the kitchen when she was under pressure. Her sister always attacked the bathroom in her moments of stress. Izzy’s best friend would invariably cut the grass.

She sighed deeply. Her husband Bill had been out of a job for the last 14 months and there was no sign of anything on the horizon. Christmas was just 10 days away and her three children were up to 90 with excitement at the thoughts of Santa’s impending arrival.

The Christmas shopping had to be done. She and Bill had just had a row about it. Now, to crown it all, she’d had the call from Mari, to say she would be back in town for Christmas. More expense. Normally, she loved having visitors and it would have been a pleasure to see her old school friend, but these days she didn’t want to see anyone. She just wanted to shrivel up inside her shell and stay there.

In the last few months, all her hope that Bill would have no problems in finding another job had become harder and harder to sustain. As money got tighter, their savings dwindled and their standard of living noticeably diminished. Izzy increasingly felt like burying her head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich.

She didn’t want Mari Clancy coming to her house when she had no oil for the central heating. Izzy didn’t want her to know that she’d sold her Fiesta and Bill’s Volvo was in the garage because they hadn’t got the money to tax and insure it. Mari would have to put up with cheap wine and a simple meal. Izzy just didn’t have the money for steaks and champagne. It was months since she’d been able to afford luxuries like that.

Izzy rubbed viciously at a particularly stubborn piece of grit that was embedded between the curved edge of her drainer and the muted beige worktop. To think she couldn’t even afford to drive any more. Who would have ever thought it? Who would have ever thought that their family’s affluent, comfortable lifestyle would have been so severely shaken and disrupted that gut-wrenching evening when Bill had come home from work, grey-faced and shaken to tell her that the multinational computer company that he worked for was closing its Irish operation in favour of their American outfit, with a loss of 500 jobs.

‘I’m finished, Izzy, I’ll never get another job at my age.’ Bill sat with his head buried in his hands while Izzy tried to take in what her husband had just told her. ‘Don’t be daft, Bill!’ she said firmly. ‘You’re only 43. That’s young, and people are always going to need experienced human resources managers.’

‘Izzy, you don’t know what it’s like out there, I’m telling you, it’s cut-throat. They can get fellas half my age with better degrees that’ll work for half my salary because they’re so desperate to get a job. The Celtic Tiger’s well and truly vanished.’ Bill had tears in his eyes and Izzy, horrified at the state her usually cheerful and easygoing husband was in, flung her arms around him and hugged him tightly.

‘Stop worrying, Bill, we’ll manage fine. You’ll get a job, I know you will. You’re the best there is; you’ll be snapped up in no time,’ she comforted, absolutely believing every word she spoke. Bill was bloody good at his job. He’d get another job… and soon.

Week after week, month after month, she’d said the same thing over and over, trying to keep her spirits up as much as his. Unemployment didn’t happen to people like her and Bill with their pretty, four-bedroom semi-detached dormer bungalow in a tree-lined cul-de-sac in Clontarf. They had always been able to afford a fortnight abroad every year and trips to London where Izzy’s sister lived. Music and swimming lessons for the kids had been the norm and Izzy had never envisaged that it would ever be otherwise.

When she’d thought about unemployment she’d had a mental image of people whose lifestyles were a million miles from her own. Izzy wasn’t a snob or anything like it; she was lucky and she knew it. She’d never thought that unemployment could happen to her family. Bill was a trained professional, for God’s sake, with years of work experience.

Being a human resources manager for hundreds of employees was an important job. People like him didn’t end up on a dole queue. Or so she’d thought. ‘Get real, Izzy!’ her younger sister, Stella, remonstrated one day several months after Bill had been made redundant, when she had been moaning about their situation. Stella was a community welfare officer and she knew a lot about unemployment. ‘Don’t kid yourself that it’s all people from so-called deprived areas that are on the dole, it isn’t. There’s a hell of a lot of people like Bill, in middle management, who are out there suffering behind their lace curtains and going to the St Vincent de Paul for help with their mortgage repayments. People who enjoyed a lifestyle just like yours.’

‘St Vincent de Paul, but that’s for poor people!’ Izzy exclaimed in horror.

‘These people are heading for poor,’ Stella said gently. ‘They’re living in lovely houses, with no heating and no phones and not enough money to pay the mortgage, and in danger of their homes being repossessed. They need help too.’ Seeing her sister’s stricken face she said gently. ‘Look, I’m not suggesting you’re ever going to need to go to the St Vincent de Paul, but what I’m saying is, start economising. Use some of Bill’s redundancy money to whack a bit off your mortgage. Get rid of one of the cars. I’m not saying that Bill won’t ever get a job again, hopefully he will, but just don’t think that he’s going to waltz into a new position just like that. It doesn’t happen like that anymore, unfortunately.’

Izzy came away from her chat with her sister more scared than she had ever been in her life. For the first time since Bill had been made redundant she had lifted her head out of the sand and taken a long, hard look at their situation. Stella's words might have been harsh but they had stiffened Izzy's resolve. It was time to sit down and take stock and face the hard facts. Bill was unemployed and likely to stay that way. The future had to be faced.

That night, when the children were in bed, she sat down with her husband and calmly announced that it was time for them to discuss their financial situation so that they could make long-term plans. Bill slumped down at the kitchen table twiddling a biro. She could see his fingers shaking. 'I don't know how we're going to manage,' he muttered. I'd like to kill the b******* that did this to him, Izzy thought viciously, as she saw her husband's hopes and dreams fade to ashes. He flicked on his calculator and they began to work on the figures. They talked of her going back to work, if she could get a job; but then they would have to pay for childcare for the three children, which was so expensive it would take up most of her salary.

Bill said they had to reduce their mortgage by two thirds - that was vital - and at least they'd have the comfort of knowing that their home was safe enough. They'd use his lump sum for that. They'd sell her Fiesta and with the money they'd make from that they'd continue the insurance policies, the most important of which was the policy they had taken out for their children's education. They'd pay the VHI for another year. If Bill didn't get a job after that there'd be no more private health insurance.

Izzy began to take her calculator to the supermarket. Before, she had never considered the cost of food that much. Whatever she felt like had gone willy-nilly into the trolley, as had make-up, books, magazines, and a couple of bottles of wine. But those days were gone. Every cent counted now.

It was coming up to the second Christmas of Bill's unemployment and her money was cut to the bone. Any saving, no matter how small, was welcome. Thank God for big impersonal supermarkets, she thought one day as she stood at the cash desk with her trolley full of Yellow Pack and Thrift. It would be a tad mortifying if the neighbours saw her, or the girl at the checkout knew her. That was always a little worry. Silly, she knew, but she couldn't help it. It wasn't that Izzy normally gave a hoot what people thought of her, it was just these days she seemed to be a bit more vulnerable.

Only the other day, her seven-year-old son, Keith, had come in, his little face scarlet with emotion. 'Mammy! Jason Pierce says that Daddy's got no job an' that we're going to be poor an' that you can't afford to bring us to Disneyland in Paris. He's a big liar, isn't he? I gave him a puck in the snot an' he went home bawling,' her son added with immense satisfaction.

'Say "and", Keith, not "an' ",' Izzy corrected automatically, hoping that Jason Pierce's nose was well and truly bloodied. Little brat! Since the Pierces had moved in next door, six months ago, there had been nothing but fights with the youngsters in the cul-de-sac. It wasn't really Jason's fault; it was that obnoxious father of his, Owen. Owen Pierce was the most bigheaded, boastful, superior individual Izzy had ever had the misfortune to encounter. Owen was a tax consultant, who had begun to make good money. On the way up, he revelled in his yuppie lifestyle. He and his wife Nicole and their two children, Jason and Diana, had moved in mid-summer, and had proceeded to make themselves thoroughly unpopular with their neighbours.

At first, the ten other families in the cul-de-sac had welcomed them and been friendly and chatty, but gradually Owen's thoroughly bumptious ways had begun to grate. It was his hail-fellow-well-met 'I'm a tax consultant. What do you do for a living?' carry-on that got under people's skin.

Owen had the biggest satellite dish, the biggest barbecue pit, the most expensive shrubs and the flashiest car. He loved boasting and always made sure that when he was telling Izzy or Bill something, the rest of the neighbours could hear as well. Izzy normally did not make snap judgments about people, but she knew very soon after she met him that he was someone she couldn't stand.

Nicole had invited Izzy in for a cup of coffee about a month after they had moved in. Nicole, with her heavily made-up face and her perfectly manicured nails, had made sure to let Izzy know that she had a woman who came in to clean twice a week. Nicole's daughter, Diana, was the same age as Jessica and as they sat drinking their freshly ground coffee, the other woman paused in their conversation and said meditatively, 'I wonder if I have anything I could give you for Jessica. She and Diana are the same age and Diana has so many clothes. She gets so many presents. I've got lots of stuff that she's never worn.'

Izzy was flabbergasted. She'd only met the woman twice, for heaven's sake, and here she was offering her clothes for Jessica. Did she think the Reynolds were on their uppers and needed charity, just because Bill was unemployed? Izzy had assured her new next-door neighbour that Jessica had plenty of clothes and hastily finished her coffee and made her escape. Even if Jessica had to go around in rags, she wouldn't accept such impertinent help from the superior Pierces.

You weren't very neighbourly, she accused herself silently, glad to get back to the comfort of her own kitchen. Was she being so prickly because her pride was hurting and she didn't want to seem like the poor man at his better's table? If Bill had been working and she'd been free of all her financial worries would she have handled Owen and Nicole differently and felt more gracious towards them? Was she, in fact, just indulging in a fit of extremely large sour grapes?

'Definitely not. Most definitely not, Izzy!' Jill, her other next-door neighbour, retorted emphatically when Izzy, shame-faced, put this scenario to her one day when they were waiting at the school gates to collect their children. 'He's a pushy sh*****!' Jill exclaimed irritably, 'and she's a stuck-up madam with notions about herself.' Izzy had laughed and didn't feel so bad knowing that it wasn't just her straightened circumstances and envy of her neighbours that had put her off Owen, Nicole and their offspring.

'Mammy, can we go to Disneyland sometime?' Keith's big blue eyes stared up into hers, wide and innocent, as blue as two cornflowers, as he shovelled the last of his macaroni cheese into his mouth.

'Well . . . um . . . some day, please God, we'll get to Disneyland. We'll just have to say a prayer that Daddy gets a job soon.' She smiled down at her son, who had gone trotting off, saying, 'Dear Holy God, please let my daddy get a job soon so he can bring us to Disneyland before scummy Jason Pierce goes.' As Izzy cleared away the dirty dishes, she thought ruefully that it wasn't a prayer that was needed to get them to Disneyland … it was a miracle.

She walked into the sitting room and gave a little shiver. The house was so cold. She felt thoroughly resentful and frustrated that she could no longer just flick a switch and have instant heat. Even though they had tried to conserve oil by turning on the heat later in the evenings, because winter had come early they had run out of that precious dark liquid a week ago. Since then, Izzy had been lighting the fire and, because they were economising on fuel, the back boiler was never hot enough to give off more than lukewarm heat from the radiators. Because of Christmas and all its expenses, they wouldn't be able to afford oil until well into the New Year. If even then.

I'm sick of this, Izzy thought bitterly as she walked over to the floor-to-ceiling window and stared out at the lowering sky that threatened snow. Snow! That was all they needed to make life even more miserable. Come the New Year, she might go looking for a part-time job that would enable her to be there when the children came home from school. She'd been a clerical officer when she had married Bill. Maybe she should have stayed working instead of taking her lump sum. Then they wouldn't be so hard hit now. If she got a part-time job, though, it could affect Bill's means tested dole money. There was no point in her working if it meant a reduction in his income, Izzy thought glumly, straightening the folds in her lace curtains. She had washed them yesterday and they were pristine. Most of the other houses in the cul-de-sac had roller blinds, net curtains being rather old fashioned, but Izzy had always liked 'proper curtains', as her grandmother called them. She hated the idea of people being able to see through her front window. Her home was her haven, not a showpiece for the neighbours to view every time they walked by.

Owen, whose latest foible was practising his putting shots on the front lawn, was always trying to gawk in the window and it gave Izzy no small satisfaction to know that he couldn't see in. Her curtains were her protection from his prying eyes. He was out now, strimming the edge of the grass, despite the fact that it was a bitterly cold winter's day. She had got so fed up of him strolling in front of her windows and playing rugby with Jason on the front lawn that she had asked her brother, a horticulturist, what she could put down to separate the gardens and keep her unwanted neighbour out. A large thorny orange-berried pyracantha trained along a white wooden picket fence now formed a border between numbers 7 and 8 Maple Wood Drive, curtailing Owen and Jason's sporting activities somewhat.

Jason was driving poor old Keith around the twist about the new computer he was getting for Christmas. It was going to be 'the best computer in the world', with better games than the old Dell one that Keith had, according to Jason. Every mother in the cul-de-sac could cheerfully have wrung Jason Pierce's neck, as their own envious offspring demanded 'a best computer' as well.

Bill and Izzy had been arguing that morning about what to buy the children for Christmas. Bill, as sick of penny-pinching as she was, wanted to borrow a couple of hundred quid from the Credit Union to splash out on Christmas, and to hell with it. Izzy had argued that they needed oil. The house insurance was coming up and all of the children needed new shoes. If there was one thing Izzy was very particular about, it was about getting good shoes for her children and nowadays a pair of decent shoes for a three-year-old could cost the guts of €50. Paying out €50 each for the three of them would leave her fairly skint.

'We can't afford it and that's that,' Izzy asserted. Bill's face darkened with impotent fury. 'Don't rub it in, for Christ's sake! I know we can't, I just want to give the kids a decent Christmas. Is that too much to want?' he snarled. A red mist descended in front of Izzy's eyes. It wasn't her fault that they had no money. She was only trying to keep them out of debt.

'Listen, mister, you can do what you damn well like. I was only trying to help. Do you think I don't want to give them a good Christmas? I'm trying to do my best for all of us and it's not easy. So don't you take it out on me, Bill. It's not my fault you're unemployed. It's not me who can't get a job.' Izzy was so angry her voice was shaking as months of suppressed rage, fear and frustration fuelled her outburst.

'God, you really know how to put the boot in, don't you?' Bill raged. 'You should have married someone like bloody Superdad over there, not a loser like me.' With that, he'd picked up his anorak and strode out of the front door, slamming it hard behind him. Sick at heart, Izzy sat down at the kitchen table, put her head in her hands and bawled her eyes out. What had she done to deserve this? she sniffled. After a good 20 minutes of alternate cursing and sobbing, she felt somewhat better. A good cry was just the thing sometimes; it helped to get it all out of your system. Fortunately, the children had spent the previous night on a sleepover with their cousins so they hadn't witnessed the row. She didn't want them being upset as well.

It was almost 3pm, Izzy noted, and still no sign of Bill. She wondered what he was doing. It had got even darker outside, the clouds so low they seemed almost to touch the rooftops. The frost, which hadn't thawed all day, cast a silvery sheen to the lawns, the flaming orange of the pyracantha berries a startling contrast. Normally Izzy would have enjoyed the picturesque, wintry scene outside her big window but today it just seemed bleak and cold and again she shivered. 'To hell with it,' she muttered crossly, and, with a determined set to her jaw, she walked over to the fire and struck a match, watching with pleasure as the flames caught the firelighters and roared up the chimney, the kindling flaming, spitting and sparking and scenting the room with the freshness of pine. The glow of the orange-yellow flames casting their shadows on the walls soothed Izzy. She sat cross-legged on the rug in front of the fire and pulled two large carrier bags overflowing with presents, in front of her. This was the ideal time to sort out the Christmas present situation. If she were quick and organised, she'd have her task complete before Bill was home. Then her husband wouldn't have the added indignity of seeing her selecting presents they had received last year, to be given to their relatives this year.

If only she could remember who had given her what. It would be a disaster to return a gift to someone who had given it to them in the first place. Izzy gave a wry smile as she unloaded the bags on to the floor. The only other time in her life when she had had to recycle presents was that first year she had moved into a flat with her two best friends and they had all been practically penniless. It had been fun then though, not like this.

She eyed the assorted collection surrounding her. Tablemats, they could go to Aunt Sadie. A basket of Body Shop soaps and shampoos. Now who had given her them? She cast her mind back, was it Stella? No, it was Rita, her sister-in-law. Well, Stella could have the Body Shop basket and Rita could have the lovely red angora scarf that her godmother had given her. Izzy fingered the scarf, enjoying the feel of the soft luxurious wool between her fingers. It would have been nice to have been able to wear it herself, she thought regretfully, but needs must and Rita would like it. She wanted to give her sister-in-law a nice present. Rita was very good to them, as indeed were all of their families. That was why Izzy wanted to give them presents at Christmas. And she wanted to show that she and Bill were not completely on their uppers. Foolish pride, she thought ruefully. They were on their uppers. If people saw her this minute, no doubt they would think she was dreadfully mean, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances.

She spent a peaceful hour sitting in the fire's glow sorting out the presents and wrapping them. She had just stood up and was trying to get rid of the pins and needles in her feet when she saw Bill marching into the cul-de-sac. He was lugging the biggest, bushiest Christmas tree she had ever seen. A broad grin creased her face. Bill was a sucker for Christmas trees. The bigger and bushier the better. She flung open the front door as her husband struggled up the path with his load. Panting, he stood looking at her. 'I'm sorry, love. I didn't mean it.' Their eyes met and a flicker of happiness ignited briefly. 'You're the best wife a man could have and I know I'm dead lucky.'

'Oh, Bill, it's all right, I didn't mean what I said either.' Izzy, happy that their tiff was over, flung her arms around him, ignoring the prickly tree and was rewarded with a one-armed bear hug. 'It's brilliant, where did you get it?' She eyed the tree admiringly.

Bill, who was a connoisseur of Christmas trees, enthused about his find. 'It's the best ever.' 'You say that every year.' Izzy laughed. 'Come on in. I have the fire lighting. It was cold, so I lit it early to make the place warm for when the kids get home,' she added a little defensively. 'You did right, Izzy, it's bloody freezing out today,' Bill declared stoutly, and they smiled at each other. 'Hey, what do you think if I rang Rita and asked her to keep the kids for another hour or two and we decorated the tree for them as a surprise?'

'Oh, yeah! Just imagine their faces!' Izzy felt her previous despondency lift as a rare light-heartedness enveloped her. Unemployment, be dammed, they were going to have the best Christmas tree ever.

Rita obligingly agreed to keep the children for another couple of hours and gratefully agreed to Izzy's offer to take her own children the following afternoon so she could do some Sunday shopping in peace and quiet. For the next two hours, Izzy and Bill thoroughly enjoyed themselves as they transformed the six-foot tree into a magical delight adorned with twinkling lights and glittering ornaments and frothy tinsel.

They laced the ceiling with garlands and Izzy prepared the crib, decorating it with black papier-mâché to give the impression of mountains, and twining ivy across the top and down the sides. She arranged a little light in at the back and laid the straw that she kept year after year, on the floor of the crib. Bill hung up a sheriff's star from an old cowboy set that he had had as a child and it glittered in the firelight as bright as any star of Bethlehem. They would have a little ceremony when the children were home. Jessica, being the youngest, would solemnly place Baby Jesus in the Crib.

They stood back to admire their handiwork. 'It's lovely,' Bill declared, as Izzy fussed at a piece of ivy wanting to have it just so. 'So is the tree.' His wife smiled. 'Definitely the best ever.' 'It's a biggie all right.' Bill grinned.

'Bigger than Superdad's,' Izzy murmured wickedly. Bill caught her knowing gaze and laughed. 'And real, as well; poor Jason has to make do with an artificial yoke, even if it is the biggest and most expensive one there is. It's just not the same, sure it isn't?' His eyes twinkled.

Owen and Nicole had put their tree up over a week ago. They had been the first in the cul-de-sac to put one up. Great wreaths of holly hung on their doors and windows and Jason and Emma were bursting with pride. Each day, Keith enquired anxiously if they were going to put their tree up and Izzy reassured her young son that indeed they would. She was dying to see his face when he saw the six-foot giant that now reposed all alight in their front window.

Ravenous after their exertions, they decided they deserved a rare treat and ordered a Chinese. They ate it sitting in front of the fire, thoroughly enjoying their spare ribs in barbecue sauce, and the crispy duck and prawn crackers. The twinkling lights of the Christmas tree and the amber luminescence of the fire enveloped them in a cocoon of golden warmth as rain and sleet lashed against the windows. Izzy and Bill enjoyed their fireside meal, all their troubles put behind them for the precious few hours they had to themselves. Later they made slow, tender love in the firelight. It was the nicest time they'd had in ages and Izzy, renewed in spirit, felt she could face anything.

That evening, the dishes tidied, the lights of the tree switched off and the sitting room in darkness, they heard Rita's car in the drive. The children, tumbling out of the car door ran to greet their parents and shelter from the sleety rain. 'We have a surprise for you. You've got to close your eyes and no peeping,' Bill warned, as he led Rachel, Keith and Jessica to the sitting room door. 'What is it? What is it?' Keith was hopping from one leg to the other with impatience.

'Keith, they're not going to tell you 'cos it won't be a surprise then,' Rachel said sagely, doing her big-sister act, but Izzy could see her eyes sparkling with anticipation.

'Huwwy on,' Jessica had her fingers up to her eyes and was peering anxiously through them. Watching the capers of the three of them, Izzy experienced a rare frisson of happiness and knew that whatever happened in the future, no one could ever take these precious moments away from her.

‘Keep those eyes shut,’ Bill warned, as Izzy took Jessica by the hand and led them into the darkened sitting room illuminated only by the firelight and the little red lamp in the crib. ‘Open up!’ Bill ordered as he plugged in the lights. He hugged Izzy as the children squealed with delight and excitement.

‘Oh, Daddy, it’s COOL!’ Keith was beside himself. ‘Oh, Mammy, isn’t it beeeautiful?’ Rachel breathed. Jessica stood speechless, her big blue eyes getting rounder by the minute. Hesitantly she stretched out a chubby little hand and touched one of the ornaments. ‘Tanta Plause,’ she exclaimed triumphantly, stroking the little fat Santa, her eyes as bright as the Christmas tree lights.

‘Oh, look at the crib, Mammy. Can we put Baby Jesus in?’ Rachel beseeched.

‘Daddy and I were waiting until you came home so we could say a little prayer to welcome Baby Jesus into our family.’ Izzy smiled and hugged her eldest daughter. She wanted her children to appreciate the special spirituality of Christmas and the crib ceremony was one of their most important family events.

‘I bet he will be comfortable, our crib is much nicer than Jason Pierce’s an’ they don’t have a light or straw either,’ Keith declared with satisfaction as he took a bit of straw and placed it in front of the two little sheep on the mountainside. ‘In case they’re hungry,’ he explained to his parents who were having a very hard time keeping their faces straight.

The following Monday morning, Bill arrived upstairs with a cup of early morning tea for his wife. ‘What kind of a day is it?’ Izzy murmured sleepily. She and Bill were going shopping for presents. They had decided on a compromise and decided to borrow €150 from the Credit Union and use €100 out of the €250 that Izzy had managed to put by for expenses. Through a chink in the curtains she could see a sliver of daylight. The wind and sleet of the previous two days had died down. Bill drew back the curtains and peered out. ‘I don’t believe it,’ she heard him say. ‘Izzy come here, you’ve just got to see this!’

‘What?’ she asked, intrigued, wrapping the duvet around her to protect her from the early morning chill. She followed her husband’s pointing finger. And burst out laughing. ‘What a prat! What a prize prat,’ she said, chortling as she viewed an outsized Noblis fir decorated with multicoloured lights, standing in a tub in the centre of the Pierces’ front lawn.

All in all, it hadn’t been a bad Christmas, Izzy decided, as she put the finishing touches to the creamy homemade vegetable soup she was serving as a starter for lunch with Mari. It was made with the stock of the turkey bones and there’d be plenty for tomorrow, she thought with satisfaction.

It was the day after Stephen’s Day and Bill had taken the children on the DART into Dublin to go to the pictures, so Izzy and her friend could have a bit of peace. Izzy had lit the fire early and had piled on the coal and briquettes so that the back boiler was boiling and the radiators were fine and hot. They were going through coal at an awful rate. Once the children were back at school, it would be back to lighting a fire in the evening. Still, at least the house was warm for her guest today.

It had been two years since Mari had last been home. Izzy had known her since they were in their teens. They’d gone to secondary school together and worked in the civil service before Mari had fallen in love with a young doctor. They had married and gone to live in Dubai ten years ago.

Izzy and she kept in touch by email, Facebook, and the occasional phone call. Mari had come back home several times over the years and Izzy had marvelled at how glamorous and sophisticated her friend had become.

She had, by all accounts, a glittering lifestyle out in the Emirates. A life full of parties and shopping and exotic travel. Her husband, Brett, had become a successful heart specialist and now they had a very affluent lifestyle. Brett and Owen would get on well, Izzy reflected, grinning. In fact it would be hilarious to listen to the pair of them trying to outdo each other. She lifted the lid of another saucepan and added some chopped chives to the flaked salmon that was poaching in a cream and white wine sauce. Her mother had made a Christmas pudding and trifle for her and her mother-in-law had baked a Christmas cake, so at least she had dessert and afternoon tea taken care of. She also had a decent Chardonnay chilling. Someone had given it to them ages ago and she had put it aside for a special occasion.

It was just as well Mari had picked the day after Stephen’s Day because there was precious little left in the kitty, and what was in the fridge was going to have to do them for the rest of the week. Still, Rachel and Keith had been thrilled with the new bikes Santa had brought and Jessica was playing her ABC computer morning, noon and night.

Izzy turned down the salmon and went to give a last look over the house. She had hoovered and dusted thoroughly that morning and the house was fragrant with polish and pot pourri. A thought struck her and she ran upstairs to her bedroom and slid open her Sliderobes. On the bottom shelf of her make-up area there was a three-quarters full roll of soft floral toilet paper. Izzy took it and went into the main bathroom to replace the cheap, rough off-white thrift roll that was in the toilet roll holder. Maybe she was being daft but she badly wanted to keep up appearances. She always kept the expensive roll for when there was visitors.

There was no need for Mari to know anything about Bill being unemployed. She couldn’t explain exactly why she didn’t want her friend to know of their plight. Mari wouldn’t look down her nose at them in the least; she wasn’t a bit like that, for all her wealth. She’d be very sympathetic if anything. It was just her silly pride, Izzy decided. But Bill’s being unemployed seemed almost tantamount to failure in the light of Brett’s success. It was a horrible thing to think, she scolded herself shamefaced, but even so… Just for good measure, she produced a box of matching tissues, which she was also keeping for ‘good wear’, out of her wardrobe. They gave a nice co-ordinated touch to the bathroom, and satisfied, Izzy went back downstairs to await her guest.

She paused in front of the mirror to check her appearance. She’d got her hair cut and blow-dried on Christmas Eve and it still looked good and a bit of make-up did wonders.

 

The last year had added a few grey hairs to her chestnut curls, she thought ruefully, and the fine lines around her wide hazel eyes had deepened perceptibly. Still, she didn’t look too bad considering, and the black trousers and amber blouse looked very well on her. A ring on the doorbell made her jump and she glanced at her watch. Mari was early.

‘Happy Christmas,’ came the cheerful greeting as Izzy opened the door and was hugged warmly by her friend who was certainly dressed for the weather in a magnificent, expensive fur coat. Mari had no problem wearing fur. Izzy tried not to think of the poor animals that had been slaughtered to make it. ‘Come in, come in,’ she urged. ‘Now that Mari was here, she was delighted to see her. ‘God above, I’m freezing.’ Mari grimaced as she shut the door behind her.

‘I’ve a blazing fire lit; come in and sit down beside it,’ Izzy urged, leading the way into the sitting room.

‘I’ve been cold since I came home,’ Mari explained. ‘The heat thins your blood and I know the animal lovers won’t approve of the coat but it really stops me from freezing to death.’ She looked tired, Izzy thought, despite the fact that her make-up was perfectly applied and her blonde, highlighted hair in its classical chignon, the height of chic.

‘Well, how are you, Izzy? How are the gang?’ Mari smiled as she shrugged out of her coat, and handed it to Izzy. She sank into the big armchair in front of the fire and held out her hands to the blaze.

‘I’m fine, we’re all fine,’ Izzy said cheerfully. ‘Sit down there and relax… and what will you have to drink?’

‘I have the car, Izzy, so I’ll just have the one glass of wine,’ Mari replied, and Izzy gave a mental sigh of relief. The good wine would last through lunch and she wouldn’t have to open that awful bottle of plonk she’d bought on special offer.

She hung the coat on the hallstand and went to the kitchen to pour the wine, which was chilling in the fridge. ‘There’s a lovely smell.’ Mari followed her in. ‘What’s for lunch?’

‘Salmon and pasta and a side salad,’ Izzy answered as she did the business with the corkscrew. ‘Oh, yum, you always made great pasta dishes, Izzy,’ Mari lifted the lid of the saucepan and sniffed appreciatively. ‘I’ve really been looking forward to seeing you and catching up on the all the craic and the gossip. Where’s Bill and the children?’

Izzy handed her a glass of wine. ‘He took them into Dublin on the DART, for a treat. They’ve gone to the pictures.’ Mari’s face fell. ‘I will get to see them, won’t I?’

‘Oh, indeed you will,’ Izzy laughed.

‘Oh, good. I’ve brought them a few presents and I’ve a bottle of brandy for yourself and Bill.’

‘Mari, you shouldn’t have!’ Izzy exclaimed. Her friend was terribly generous and knowing that she wouldn’t come empty handed, Izzy had wrapped up a hardback copy of best-selling author Philippa Gregory’s brand-new novel that her Aunt Patti had given her. She’d been dying to read it herself but she knew that Mari, who was an avid reader, would thoroughly enjoy it and a brand new hardback book was a decent present to give her old friend.

‘I suppose I won’t recognise the children.’ Mari sipped her wine appreciatively. ‘Jessica was only a baby the last time I was home.’

‘She’s well and truly a little girl now, marauding all over the place and up to all kinds of mischief,’ Izzy grinned. Mari had no children but she always took an interest in Rachel, Keith and Jessica and always brought them something on her trips home from Dubai.

‘Will I serve up our lunch now?’ Izzy cocked an eyebrow at the other woman. ‘Why not, if it’s OK with you? I haven’t eaten all morning and I feel a bit peckish,’ Mari agreed. ‘Go on in to the dining room and sit down and I’ll bring in the soup,’ Izzy instructed. She had set the dining table with the good silverware and crystal and her best linen tablecloth and napkins. And she had a lovely centrepiece on the table made up of holly and ivy, that she and Bill had picked in the woods. She lit the candles and served the soup and garlic bread and the pair of them sat down to a good natter.

Although Mari had said she was peckish she didn’t do justice to the meal and Izzy was terribly perturbed that perhaps she hadn’t liked the dish. Her friend always ate like a horse and never put on an ounce, unlike Izzy who only had to look at a cream cake to put on weight. ‘Was it OK? Maybe it was a bit rich?’ Izzy said apologetically.

‘No, no! It was fine. Really!’ Mari assured her. ‘I just wasn’t as hungry as I thought.’ They had their coffee in at the fire, chatting about inconsequential things and somehow, Izzy, listening to tales of the glamorous life in the Emirates, just couldn’t bring herself to tell Mari that Bill was unemployed.

He and the children arrived home around six and they were full of excitement about their jaunt on the DART and their trip to the cinema and McDonald’s. ‘It’s lovely and warm in here,’ Keith said appreciatively, and Izzy, being extra sensitive on the day that was in it, prayed that her son would keep his mouth shut and say nothing else. She didn’t want her affluent friend thinking that the house wasn’t always this warm.

When Mari produced their presents, there was as much excitement as when Santa’s gifts had been discovered on Christmas morning. Mari was in her element as they all vied for hugs and kisses before Bill took the three of them out to the kitchen to get some hot, nourishing soup into them. Rachel, en route to the kitchen, sighed, and said wistfully, ‘I wish it was Christmas every day of the year so we could always have this gorgeous food.’

Izzy nearly died. Her face actually flamed as she stood waiting for her child to say something like she was sick of beans and mince and fish fingers, but she said nothing else and followed her sister and brother. ‘Turkey and ham and Christmas pud always seems so exotic when you’re a child, doesn’t it?’ Mari remarked innocently, quite unaware of her friend’s angst.

‘Hmm…’ agreed Izzy distractedly. God only knew what the children were going to come out with next to land her in it. She should have been honest with Mari at the beginning and told her about Bill being unemployed. There was no shame in it. It could happen to anyone, but it would look a bit odd to go suddenly blurting it out now, especially when she had led Mari to believe that everything was normal in the Reynolds’ household. She was going to be on tenterhooks for the rest of the evening.

She must excuse herself for a minute and grab Bill and tell him to say nothing about being unemployed. She’d tell him she’d explain later. He’d probably be annoyed with her and feel that she was ashamed of him. By trying to keep up a façade she’d made a right mess of things, she thought miserably.

‘They’re just gorgeous, Izzy. You’re so lucky,’ Mari said, enviously, interrupting her friend’s musings.

‘I know that,’ Izzy agreed, carefully folding up the expensive wrapping paper and mentally reflecting that it would come in handy next year.

‘Mammy, I did wee wee all by myself.’ Jessica appeared at the door with her dress caught up in her little panties.

‘You’re a good girl!’ her mother exclaimed. ‘Come here until I tuck in your vest.’ Jessica cuddled in against her as Izzy adjusted her clothing. ‘There’s lobely soft toilet woll in the bathwoom, it’s nice and soft on my bum bum,’ Jessica announced, staring at Mari.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Izzy thought in mortification. Next, she’ll be saying we’re poor people or something. Heart scalded, flustered, she told her daughter to go back out to the kitchen to finish her soup. Jessica wrapped her little arms around her neck. ‘I lobe you, Mammy. The next time, will you come to the pictures?’

‘Of course I will, lovey.’ Izzy hugged the little girl to her before she went trotting out to the kitchen.

‘She’s so beautiful,’ Mari said, and her voice sounded terribly sad. Izzy caught her friend’s gaze and to her dismay saw that Mari’s eyes were bright with tears.

‘God! What’s wrong, Mari?’ Izzy exclaimed, closing the door and rushing over to her side. ‘What is it? Tell me what’s wrong.’ She put her arms around her friend as Mari began to cry.

‘Brett and me, we’re finished. He’s been having an affair with this American bimbo half his age and now she’s pregnant and he wants a divorce. He wouldn’t let me come off the Pill, he kept saying to wait another year and then another and now this tart’s pregnant and it’s fine by him. I hate him, the bastard,’ Mari sobbed. ‘I didn’t want to tell you, I was just too ashamed.’

Izzy couldn’t believe her ears. What a shit Brett was. She knew Mari had always wanted children. ‘You’ve nothing to be ashamed about,’ she said outraged, ‘He’s the skunk. I can’t believe he did this to you. He’s not worthy of you, Mari. Don’t you dare feel ashamed.’

Mari lifted her head from Izzy’s neck. ‘I don’t know why I feel this way. I did nothing to be ashamed about. It’s just… Oh, you know what I mean, Izzy, my poor mother will be mortified. The first divorce in the family. What will the relations say?’ she hiccupped.

‘Don’t mind the relations or anyone. It’s your life and your business,’ Izzy snorted.

‘I’ve been on my own for months. I just couldn’t tell you. Can you understand?’ Mari managed a wry smile.

‘I understand exactly,’ Izzy said slowly. ‘Actually, Mari, I’ve been keeping something from you as well.’ She met her friend’s tear-stained gaze. ‘Bill’s been out of work for over 14 months and it’s a bit of a struggle. Like you, I just couldn’t bring myself to say it out straight. I wanted to keep up appearances. I’m sorry it was just silly pride,’ she admitted ruefully.

‘Oh, Lord. That’s awful for you and Bill,’ Mari exclaimed. ‘You should have told me!’

‘I know, and you should have told me!’

‘He’ll get another job,’ Mari soothed. ‘And at least the pair of you are as crazy about each other as ever. You can spot that a mile off. God. You can face anything when you’re together. I was so gutted when I found out about Brett and that… that pea-brained, simpering idiot who’s got her claws into him. The thing that hurt most of all is that she’s pregnant. Every time I suggested trying for a baby he said to wait another year. He didn’t want his cushy lifestyle disrupted by crying babies. I’ll probably never have a child of my own now.’ Her voice wobbled and she burst into tears again.

‘Of course you will; you’ll meet someone new. You’re still a relatively young woman,’ Izzy reassured her, shocked by what she had just heard. Her own circumstances might not be the best but they were a hell of a lot better than Mari’s. No wonder the poor girl couldn’t eat her lunch. No wonder she’d seemed so on edge for the afternoon. ‘I haven’t told the family yet. Mum will have a fit.’

‘She’ll get over it,’ Izzy assured her.

‘It’s such a relief to tell someone, Izzy,’ Mari confessed, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘It’s been so hard being at home trying to pretend everything’s normal. I told them Brett couldn’t come home because of work commitments. A bit feeble, I know, but no one’s questioned it. It’s bloody hard trying to keep up the façade.’

‘Of course it’s been hard, Mari, but you’ve got to tell them. You can’t go around keeping that to yourself. You’d crack up. And I know your family — they’ll be very supportive; it’s amazing how kind people are when the chips are down. I know,’ she added wryly.

‘Oh, Izzy, what idiots we’ve been, trying to put on brave faces. If we can’t tell each other our problems, then who can we tell?’ Mari said.

‘Exactly!’ Izzy agreed. ‘Now, look, why don’t you phone home and tell them you’re staying the night and we’ll open the brandy you brought and we’ll have Brandy Alexanders and have a really good natter about things.’

‘Oh, Izzy, that would be lovely,’ Mari said, sighing, beginning to feel better already. ‘I’ll just run up and put the heat on in the spare bedroom, and fish out some towels and a nightdress for you.’ Izzy patted her on the shoulder.

‘Now don’t go to any trouble,’ Mari remonstrated. ‘It’s no trouble for an old pal,’ Izzy said firmly. She turned on the radiator and laid a clean, long-sleeved nightdress on Mari’s bed. That would keep her snug, she thought, and she’d put the electric blanket on later. To hell with the electricity bill for once. Mari was undergoing a bad enough trauma without spending the night shivering. Izzy stood at the bedroom window, staring out into the night. A sliver of new moon hid behind a wisp of cloud.

The lights of the Christmas trees in her neighbour’s window spilled out into the darkness, adding festive illumination to the cul-de-sac. Owen’s Noblis stood proudly on his front lawn. Owen had got a new four-wheel drive for Christmas and had spent a lot of time sitting in it making calls on his car phone. ‘He’d got it cheap because it was an end of year model,’ Bill remarked, grinning when he’d seen it.

Izzy smiled. Her neighbour was pathetically childish, really. Maybe there was some reason for his juvenile behaviour. Maybe he’d had a terribly deprived childhood. Who knew? Who knew what went on in people’s lives? Who knew what went on behind the façades? Look at poor Mari.

Who would have believed it? She and Bill were lucky; they had each other and they had the children. She could hear the three of them laughing and chattering in the kitchen. Closing the curtains, Izzy straightened the folds, switched off the light and went downstairs, where Bill took the opportunity to kiss her soundly under the mistletoe, before she went back into the snug, warm sitting room to rejoin her friend.

Belfast Telegraph

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