She listens to the tinny drip, drip of the cold water as it hits the stainless steel sink. How long has the tap been like this – three, four years, more? The domestic brand marks of family life – faulty taps, scuffs on the skirting boards and drooping door handles – are to be expected, but they have to be addressed at some point. Jen marches theatrically into the shed and retrieves a set of spanners.
‘That’s not women’s work, get him to do it,’ her mother quips. There is a fixed role for everyone in her mother’s world. She can’t help it; her Mum is of a different generation, a generation where women ‘kept house’ and had dinner on the table when their menfolk came home from work.
When men were men, bringing home the dosh and demonstrating their superiority by undertaking all the domestic repairs.
‘You’re obsessed with house maintenance,’sneers Ray. ‘Why can’t you relax?’ What Jen regarded as Ray’s endearingly laid back attitude when they first met turned out to be consummate laziness once the novelty of being a newlywed wore off.
‘No one’ll notice anyway,’says Ellie, wearing her usual pout and Poco Rabanne perfume. Where did their delightful, happy daughter go? The challenges of teenage life have stolen her charms and thrown them into a witch’s cauldron of angst and anger.
Gran, always the dove of peace, pipes up. ‘Don’t wear yourself out, pet,’she says, addressing Jen. Magnanimous in her old age, she is oblivious to the vagaries of dysfunctional family life.
Thanks for the advice, Gran, but what are my options?
Ray continues to slouch on the sofa with the dog as Jen struggles to fix the leaky tap. The walls are closing in on her like a crusher in a scrapyard. She needs to get away.
Stomping out of the room, she grabs the car key from the hall and slams the front door shut behind her. She needs some space. And a G and T. The bottle of Bombay Sapphire disappeared with Ellie when she went on her latest sleepover, but there are some ready-mixed cans in the car. A poor substitute, but better than nothing.
She accelerates rather too aggressively out of the drive. How did she find herself in this situation at only 36 years old? Middle age is approaching. She needs to do something about her life, and fast. She’s tired of her passive partner, her morose teenage daughter, her domineering mother, even her dear, dementing grandmother. Time to take stock. Damn, it tastes good, she thinks, necking another can of G and T.
She hears, rather than sees, her impact with the van, which jettisons her backwards against the seat as the airbag activates. Then a man’s face appears at the window. ‘You idiot! Didn’t you see me?’
‘I’m so sorry! It’s my fault entirely.’
She knows not to admit liability, but honesty is second nature to her. She feels guilty, like a child caught licking the icing off a birthday cake. Wriggling free from the car, her legs give way, like a wooden marionette without its puppeteer. Her shoes are scuffed, she notices. And the car radio is still blaring away. Queen. She likes Queen.
The other driver helps her as she hobbles to the roadside. He’s calmer now, and she detects a gentle Irish lilt to his voice. Thirty-something, attractively louche in manner, casually dressed – white linen shirt and well-fitting jeans, shoulder-length mid-brown hair flopping over his forehead, nicely manicured hands. Despite herself, a warm glow emanates from somewhere deep inside.
Has he detected the alcohol on her breath? Will he call the police?
Leaking oil, with its distinctive smell of cats’ piss, oozes in copious rivulets along the road, mixing with shattered chips of windscreen and unidentifiable car parts. The van had come off worse in the collision.
As they wait for the recovery services, Jen starts shaking involuntarily as delayed shock sets in. The other driver grabs his jacket from the van and capes it around her shoulders. ‘Tell us about yourself,’ he says, with a lopsided smile.
What to say? For a nanosecond, Jen is tempted to spice up the truth, afraid that by voicing the banality of her life it would cement the fact, like indelible ink, onto her. Instead, she gives him a brief and vaguely truthful précis, then asks him, Patrick, the same thing.
‘Ah, I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, me. I can turn my hand to anything – there’s always someone needing a bloke like me.’
A light goes on in Jen’s brain.
‘I don’t suppose you’ll do a spot of house maintenance for the woman who smashed into your car?’she says in a light-hearted tone, trying not to sound too coy.
‘Sure I will, just as soon as I’m mobile again.’
Bingo! Almost worth the crash, Jen thinks.
Mum and Gran are delighted with Patrick; Ray, less so. In the way that a man sees another man demonstrating his competence, the threat to Ray’s manhood is tangible. Jen observes this in the set of his jaw; hears it in the thinly-veiled contempt of his voice.
‘He’s still not finished that bit - are you sure he knows what he’s doing?’
‘If you don’t like the way he’s working, Ray, you do it,’ Jen retorts with an exaggerated roll of her eyes.
He shuts up.
Patrick soon comes to be regarded as an extension of the family. His Irish charm and sense of humour are infectious, and family tensions dissipate. He endears himself to Gran, flirts outrageously with Jen’s mum, and becomes the confidante that Ray has never been for Ellie.
He’s the ultimate mood booster, and Jen’s all-too-frequent G and T’s become a thing of the past. She has no qualms about finding yet more jobs around the house for Patrick to turn his hand to; sometimes he even accepts supper in lieu of payment. At these times Ray sits, scowling, opposite him, punctuating the air with his silence.
Then one day, Patrick fails to appear. He doesn’t answer his phone or text messages. A week passes before he turns up unannounced on the doorstep.
‘You OK, Patrick?’ Jen can’t keep the concern out of her voice.
‘I’m sorry, Jen, I have to move on.’
‘What do you mean, move on?’
‘I didn’t want to let you all down, to be sure, but it’s the Irish wanderlust in me. I never stay in the same place for too long. It’s time for me to go. It’s been a treat getting to know you and your family, but I’ve come to say goodbye.’ He bows his head in a gesture of apology and regret.
The shock and hurt in Jen’s face are obvious. She throws her arms around him, feeling his warm, taut body as it sends shivers down her spine and a hint of what could have been. How different her life could have been if Patrick had come into her life sooner. But now it’s too late to think about that. As he walks away, she promises to give his goodbyes to the rest of the family and feels a sharp stab of tears come into her eyes.
‘Good riddance!’ announces Ray, while the rest of the family mourn their latest and lost friend. They hadn’t even a photo to remember him by.
But the next morning they have their photo.
A mugshot of a far less cheery Patrick stares back at them from the front pages of the national newspaper.
Missing Suspect Sought by Police
A middle-aged man with a distinct Irish accent is wanted by police in
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