Tuesday 30 May 2017

Another breakfast with you

Máire T Robinson

Love and hate are the same thing. I know that now. It's only the temperature that's different, like bread and toast, or cheddar and fondue.

I would love if Malachy hated me; to know he lays awake at night fuming as my name reverberates in his head; that images of me flash into his mind unbidden, leaving scorch marks on his retina; that he shuffles about his house when nobody is home cursing me aloud to the sink, the table and chairs, the hardwood floor -- Fuckin' bitch . . . stupid fucking cunt -- that he tears out his black hair in clumpfuls from the sheer frustration of trying to contain his hatred of me. But he doesn't. I gave him no reason to. I know that now he feels nothing for me but the opposite of love, and the true opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

After him, I was restless. I changed jobs. I changed hair colour. I changed city. After him, I was burned, cautious. I'd start seeing some fella and worry that he would be just like Malachy. Then I'd end up disappointed when it turned out he wasn't. In Galway, I found work with a temp company like the one I'd worked for in Dublin. I got to know the outskirts of the city, the bus routes to the business parks, the different names of the endless roundabouts, the grey houses that lined the streets like crooked teeth. I answered phones and took messages and filed bits of paper, but it was different now. Before my days had been filled with him, like a drug: waiting to see him, then seeing him, then thinking about having seen him. Now there was this void. I wondered how people knew what they were supposed to do with their lives. I could see it there, my life playing out in front of me, but it was like this foreign thing I couldn't get inside.

I heard someone say once that the break-up of a relationship is like a death that only two people experience. So I suppose you could say that I mourned when it was over, but he didn't. I saw the pictures of his engagement party in Irish Society Magazine. He was beaming, indecently gleeful. Food columnist, Hannah Richardson, celebrates her engagement to Dublin barrister Malachy McNulty. In the interview she said when they had met and the dates didn't add up. In the photos, he was wearing the cornflower-blue shirt I gave him for his birthday. The one I couldn't afford, but bought anyway because I knew the colour would bring out his eyes. And it did.

When I was made redundant, it didn't bother me at first. I thought I'd find some other office work like I always had in the past. But every day of the week people were losing their jobs. Businesses were closing down. A Burger King opened in Galway and a thousand people showed up for the open job interviews. It made the evening news. All these architects and teachers and accountants desperate for work: kids to feed, mortgages to pay. At least I didn't have that to worry about. So, I sank into my unemployment like a relaxing bath. I wore pyjamas all day. I watched daytime TV. I drank. Sometimes I was filled with a giddy feeling of getting away with something, like when you'd be off sick from school and you could watch telly all day, and you'd laugh to yourself thinking of all the saps at their desks doing maths. But other times I was filled with a fear, a paralysis that made leaving the flat impossible.

I was flicking channels one day, and there she was, Malachy's wife. Home Cooking With Hannah. She was wearing a floral apron and smiling at the camera as she sifted flour into a bowl. I realised that it wasn't some TV studio done up to look like a kitchen. It was their kitchen, in their farmhouse in County Wicklow. I recognised it from that magazine spread they did after their daughter was born. They were photographed in various rooms, all restored faithfully using local materials. I know I shouldn't have looked at it. I couldn't not look at it.

I could see why Hannah had been given her own TV show. She wasn't like those female chefs you see on British TV, food pornographers mugging for the cameras and describing everything as "orgasmic". She was natural and understated. I'd seen her photo before but never heard her voice. I liked the way her diction trilled with polished pronunciation. She sounded Irish, but not Irish. What you might call West-Brit if you felt like insulting her. Listening to her speak, you couldn't help but picture a childhood filled with pony rides, skiing trips, ballet recitals and various social engagements with the type of people who use "summer" as a verb. The type of childhood Malachy also had, and now their children would have. I knew that they summered in Tuscany. She loved the bold rustic flavours of the region. She wrote about them in her first book, Bold Rustic Flavours of Tuscany.

I started watching Hannah's show every day. There was something reassuring about her, something indestructible. A toxic gas cloud could float over from Sellafield killing everything in its wake, making no allowances for school children or baby seals or high-ranking civil servants, and there she would be still baking scones in her Aga, an invisible force field of middle-class charm rendering her untouchable. After a few weeks, I even attempted some of the recipes. Sometimes she mentioned him and I imagined their life together.

"These freshly baked scones are just perfect for family get-togethers. They're a particular favourite of my husband's," she said.

I used to cook breakfast for Malachy the odd time he stayed over. "Don't you know how to cook anything other than eggs?" he said.

"Eggs are good for you. They contain protein."

"So does steak."

He never stuck around for long. Always work to do, or so he said, even at weekends. "Your flat is always so fucking cold."

"So come back to bed and I'll warm you up."

"Be sure not to over-handle the dough as this can make the scones rubbery. Place them close together on the tray. This will encourage them to rise, not spread." Hannah tapped the underside of the scones and they made a hollow sound. "Perfect," she said.

"Perfect," I mimicked as I tipped out the burnt solid mass that hit the counter like a brick.

The day we found out our jobs were gone, everyone was talking on their phones, or crying, or crying into their phones. I felt stupid just standing there. I couldn't cry and I couldn't think of anyone to call so I rang the talking clock. At the beep, the time will be 12.22. Beeeep. Jim Fahy was at the gates with his RTE News microphone, asking people for their reactions.

"How are you feeling?" he asked me.

"Grand," I said. I was thinking that he looked much taller than he does on telly. "I mean, terrible. It's terrible. Sorry about that. I think I'm in shock."

On the bus home I wondered what I'd look like on screen. Later, I watched the evening news but I hadn't made the cut. Instead, they used a clip of Gráinne from accounts. "I don't know what I'm going to do!" she wailed into the camera lens. The light fell on her face, showing up the line of downy hair on her upper lip and the purplish shadows under her eyes that looked like bruises.

The more I watched Hannah's show, the more my cooking started to improve. I found myself getting up early, making shopping lists and scouring supermarket shelves for ingredients. I stopped spending my dole money on vodka and cigarettes and started buying things like pimento stuffed olives and vanilla pods. One day I went into town and enrolled on a cookery course. On my way home, I stopped into the newsagents. There was a picture of Malachy and Hannah on the front of one of the tabloids. 'TV Chef's Love-Rat Hubbie in Au-Pair Shocker' screamed the headline. I skimmed through the article, then bought a copy and headed home to read it properly.

Inside the newspaper, there were pictures of the au-pair alongside her "exclusive story" of the affair. "We liked to get steamy in the kitchen" she was quoted as saying. Then at the end of the article alongside a photo of her staring mournfully into the middle distance: "I still have feelings for Malachy." The strange thing is, she looked just like Hannah, only a less polished version, like some second-rate actress who had been hired to play Hannah in one of those "straight to DVD" biopics. It was as if Malachy had thought he wanted the new, but the familiar won out, like going abroad but drinking in an Irish bar. Maybe she was an act of rebellion, an antidote to all that perfection.

Every day, there were more and more revelations in the papers. I read them over coffee in my tiny kitchen which felt different now, warmer, transformed by the daily smell of fresh baking. More women came forward with stories of their affairs with Malachy. There was speculation that Hannah would leave him, that she would cancel her forthcoming book tour. Still, she refused to be interviewed and never made a statement. There she was on TV every day as always. "Perfect," she said as she piled the almond and orange zest moon-shaped biscuits on to a floral serving tray. And they were perfect. And so was she, the chaos of the universe controlled in her measured stirring of the eggs and the way she sifted the flour just so.

When I told Malachy I was pregnant, he offered me money, said he'd take care of everything. I told myself he would change his mind. I waited. I pictured the new life we would have together, the three of us. Maybe I pictured this new life as something like those photos of him and Hannah in Irish Society Magazine. But then I stopped waiting because there was nothing to wait for anymore.

"Maybe it's for the best," he said. "We had fun though, didn't we?" As if we'd been playing a game of pool and our hour was up. Had. Just like that.

I bought my copy of Home Cooking With Hannah and stood in line. I could see her smile and sign books for the people up ahead. I opened the book and looked inside. It was dedicated To My Darling Husband, Malachy. I edged forward in the line. I wanted to tell her that we were the same. I wanted to kick over her display of books and spit in her face. I wanted her to see that we were not the same. I wanted to ask her which of his faces he showed to her and which of his faces was real. I wanted to tell her how tired it made me, hating somebody because they didn't love me. I wanted to ask if she was tired, too. I wanted to take her hand and lead her out into the street to run and run in the rain until we were both out of breath and laughing like in a film.

I remembered then the feeling I had when me and Malachy were together, like I could never get close enough to him. I used to scrape my fingernails down his back to make him bleed, to claim him, but it was no good. Even with my arms around his neck, my mouth on his, our bodies entwined, we were too far apart.

"I want to open you up and crawl inside," I told him and he gave me his lazy smile like he understood what I meant. But I don't know anymore. When I picture it now, it looks more like a smirk. What I remember most is his mouth, and always the surprising coldness of his kiss.

At the top of the queue, Hannah smiled at me. "Hi there, thanks for coming," she said, reaching to take the book from my hands. "Who will I make this out to?"

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