Copyright 2016 Pauline Hall
Published by Pauline Hall at Shakespir
September 2016. Ebook version 1.
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To Neville, with love.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Carl Gilbride at Gilbride International.
Table of Contents
Since I came here, I haven’t owned a television. Nor have I watched it, though I can’t easily dodge snatches of game shows or news drifting up from the bars below, as the drinkers wait for a Deportivo or Real Madrid match. Signature tunes and ad breaks drive me out into the night, shaking, to walk for miles to unfamiliar and distant barrios. Otherwise, no sleep for me.
How I used to despise Spanish TV: deeply stupid, sexist, ageist, racist, dumb entertainment, not like the work we did. We preened ourselves on being pioneers. We were giving a voice to the silenced, tackling real-life issues, lighting up dark areas of Irish life. What bullshit.
I took a long walk that night. Just as I reached my apartment the phone was ringing.
The front door stuck as usual, but I managed to grab the phone in time. Gerard. ‘So, you’re still over there?’
‘Eoin, I’ve just got rid of a reporter from my doorstep. Charming, on a Sunday afternoon. The bastard nearly got into the house. It was Nicholas who opened the door.’
Nicholas; my godson, Gerard’s youngest kid.
‘Was he all right afterwards?’
‘It took a while.’
‘Sorry,’ I said. That was the most parroted word, from the start. As Maggie used to say, ‘How does an apology make any difference?’
That was the most parroted word, from the start. Everyone turned out to be sorry: the fixers, the heads at the TV station, all the chatterers.
‘What was he looking for?’
Gerard sighed. ‘For information about you, of course. A persistent bugger. Quizzing Nicholas, trying to catch him out – “Has your uncle been in touch? When exactly did you last see him? What about Maggie? What is Eoin planning? Is he returning to Ireland?” – I wish I’d got my hands on him.’
As Gerard talked, I was seeing with the usual surprise, how the Dublin Mountains seem to grow at the end of his quiet cul de sac. And how the deep gravel sounded when I walked away the last day. Here, in Andalusia, the darkness had come with an abrupt switch, but I knew all about the slow retreat of light from an Irish sky.
Of course, if Gerard’s neighbours saw a strange car, a conversation on the doorstep, someone would say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s just a year now, isn’t it? Amazing how quickly the time went.’
‘Sorry,’ I said again. ‘I read the interviews: not much there: none of the women said anything new. The media is like a dog with a bone, still trying to suck out non-existent juice.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong, Eoin. There’s still lots of juice.’
Gerard doesn’t let me away with anything, nowadays.
‘Good on Breege, she didn’t give them an interview,’ I said.
‘The oldest woman, used to be a nun, remember?’
In the silence, I could hear kids’ noise from behind him. I guessed the French doors were open on to the garden, and he had just finished bustling there: pruning or something.
‘No’, he said, ‘no, I don’t. How are you managing, anyway?’
‘Well, I have my routine. Private classes. An early one at the airport, a late one at the Town Hall, some hours at the Institute in the middle of the day. My Spanish is improving, too. Honestly, I’m getting by.’
He said nothing.
‘If teaching English was good enough for James Joyce, it’s good enough for me.’
‘Very funny, Eoin.’
I told him how the Institute had come to take me on as Profesor de Ingles, mostly because I showed up at the right moment. That’s a pattern in my life. Someone had just walked out and there I was with my English degree and my cream linen jacket.
He laughed, then asked, in his lawyer’s voice, ‘What brought you to Seville anyway? Was it their penitential antics? Did you want to put on a pointy hood and walk in the Semana Sancta procession?’
‘Far from it. That kind of creepy stuff triggers my inner Protestant. Anyway, you’ve got the wrong image of this city, based on one week of the year. Mostly, it’s full of allegria.’
‘Joy and pleasure.’
Gerard was puzzled by the life I was leading here – modest and slightly old-fashioned. But he was wrapped up in Ireland, mindful mainly of Irish news.
‘Damian O’Carroll marked the first anniversary, too. He was ignoring the subject for while. Now he wants journalists and lawmakers and clergy to treat the whole episode as a warning to our culture. He says it’s still haunting us. We’ve had questions in the Dáil, and he looks forward to novels, exposes, theses. A hangnail, he calls it.’
‘I wonder how that guy filled his column before we made our show. Still, I have to say he has a point, and a hangnail is good, very good.’
I stood, holding the receiver, even after the dial tone started. ‘A hangnail,’ I said out loud to the blinds lowered against the breathless air of the narrow street. It’s a street that would be called típico de españa: a long whitewashed wall with flowering creeper tumbling over the top. The flat itself is tiny, a bedroom whose door strikes against the bed, a hall door with no hall, but opening abruptly into the living room, and a galley kitchen where the sink is covered with a board and the taps are so close to the wall it’s a struggle to turn them on. I keep the sink, the draining board, the taps and the worktop very clean. Despite the shortage of space, I never open the cupboard under the sink. Once was enough. The cockroaches are of heroic size. Las Cucharachas: sounds like a Latin American group. I eat out, mostly, to leave the rickety table free to work on my book.
Impossible to stay there, so I headed out again, drumming along by the river wall, to the partially decrepit, yet oddly wholesome quarter around the Alameda of Hercules. There’s something almost innocent about the red light trade here. I stopped in a bar where I watched a prostitute deposit her kid on a bar stool while she went outside. The drinkers bought him boccadillos and Fanta. I guessed he was about the same age as Nicholas.
The squid was chewy and the wine harsh, but my spirits lifted as I mused on how I would stir things up at home. Next time someone asked Gerard about my whereabouts, he could say that I had become a Buddhist monk or else a mercenary in Africa. I’d let him pick which.
Back through Calle Sierpes. One shop window displayed nothing but a pair of long crimson gloves, the leather stretched yet faintly crinkled. Behind them, a black and gold enamel crucifix. The run–up to Semana Sancta. Maggie.
I spewed, leaving the squid and the wine, the lot, in the entrance to an alley.
The birth of our TV show, The Fixers, came about in the same way as my job as Profesor de Ingles. Another brush with chance. Maggie always linked those three words: chance, choice and change. It was one of the mantras from her books, and like everything she said when we were cooking up The Fixers, it seemed full of condensed wisdom, as if she was a Zen artist who could move freely between those three points.
How do I begin? With an encounter. Where encounters are concerned, there are coincidences, and there are intuitions: both were in play on that rainy May morning in Dublin nearly two years ago. I ought to have been at the office, proving my worth by getting to grips with my new project, a project that didn’t make my heart sing. Yet perversely, with a deadline looming, I had to mooch. Telling myself that I’d take a little time to think, I detoured into the Burlington Hotel.
In the lobby stood a life-size cardboard cut-out of a woman in a black dress alongside an invitation to Meet Famous Australian Psychologist and Author, Doctor Maggie Vernon. Even in that ridiculous format, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. Without quite knowing why, I went over and stood beside the cardboard her – taking in her warrior bearing that somehow matched the soft fall of her dress, the loops of her gold chain. Breakfast Seminar, the sign beside her declared, Lavender Room.
I moved slowly along the corridor as if I wasn’t really heading towards the Lavender Room, merely ended up there, just as the door happened to open. The breakfast seminar had finished and well-turned-out women were chatting as they left. The room was all oak wainscotting, oatmeal carpet and Celtic motifs in the fabric panels behind the dais, where Maggie was surrounded by women clutching books. When she leaned over to sign an offered page, the sharp razor cut of her hair shadowed her cheek. I heard her big laugh as she touched the shoulder of a woman whose three books she had just signed. I was almost sorry when she suddenly spotted me, because then I had to move. I would have been quite happy to stay watching.
‘Well, hello, do come in,’ she called, as the whole queue looked towards me. ‘There’s only cold tea and croissant crumbs, I’m afraid, but you’ll have to take a book now that you’re here.’
The title, Up and Away, didn’t match the cool cover design of geometric blocks, a bit like a Mondrian. As she heard my name, she laughed. ‘E-o-i-n, the smart spelling… Your surname?’ Then, looking up from the page where she had written with steep diagonal strokes, ‘For Eoin Doherty, on the morning he gate crashed my seminar’, she held my eyes.
‘What’s your book about?’ I asked.
‘I’d love to tell you, but we’d need a little time.’
‘I’m in no hurry. How about when you’ve finished with this lot?’ I gestured to the queue of fans. ‘It seems you’ve done enough work today already.’
She laughed. ‘What brings you here?’
‘Coffee and deep thought,’ I said. ‘No, if I’m being honest, coffee and a moan.’
‘Have you got anyone to listen?’
‘Not as yet. I may have to make do with myself.’
‘No,’ she said, laughing again. ‘That won’t work. Let’s take care of the coffee, anyway. I might entertain the moan also, but I’m not promising.’
In the lobby, we took a corner table. I sat with my back to the wall. Behind her, the traffic of the lobby moved inside the big windows. The shrubs around the car park were bowed and soaking.
‘So are you going to let me hear a quick moan?’ she asked, turning to look for a waitress. I studied her ornate gold rings, the matte black dress, the Egyptian profile.
Though I usually held my troubles close, I felt oddly comfortable outlining the shaky state of my career. The UK debacle. Her gaze was as clear as a boy’s, almost unsettling.
‘You poor thing: now you’re back in Ireland, where’s the win for you?’
‘Get in quickly with a new little show that I have in mind, deliver it without any problems, and move on. I need a foothold here. I’m fucked in the UK. I’m afraid I’ve missed the boat.’
‘Well, have you or haven’t you?’
‘It can easily happen, in our business.’
‘In any business,’ she said. ‘Do go on.’
I went on. I had to. She was in front of me. ‘I’m back in Ireland only because I cost the UK production company a shed load of money. They had to settle out of court with a hotel that claimed we libelled them, because there was an identifying sign in one of the shots.’
‘The point of the show was to portray a rubbish hotel, so they sued. Dangerous business, TV.’
‘Now, let me guess, you’ve come back to Ireland to live it down…’
‘I’ve come back to Ireland to prove myself professionally,’ I insisted.
‘Let’s put it in concrete terms. That means you’ve a chance. You’ve landed some sort of show?’
‘I’ve a chance to get a contract, but only one chance: The newest player into the market here – still quite a small outfit – need some quick wins, and I got tipped off that they are in the market for a short series on women’s journeys. If I can land the gig, a production company here is bound to give me another start.’
‘Say a bit more about women’s journeys,’ she said.
‘Real-life heroines, that sort of stuff. No great shakes.’
‘You reckon it’s kind of harmless, just a filler, then?’
‘More or less. Ho Hum.’
‘As it happens,’ she said, ‘I’ve been on TV panel discussions at home, based on my agony aunt column.’
‘It dealt with?’
‘Women’s stories, full of hidden sadness, horrible family secrets. Not at all harmless. Really potent. You’re way off the mark about Ho Hum.’
‘You would say that wouldn’t you? Lookit, my take on this show is that it’ll get me in the door, could put me in line for others, significant stuff. . And I need to bring in some money.’
By the time the waitress arrived with a big silver pot, I had forgotten all about the coffee. She started setting out our cups and balancing sugar tongs on the side of the bowl, till I waved her away.
‘Sure. Will you tell me a bit about your concept?’
I hesitated, moved to pour coffee.
‘It’s still ungelled.’
‘Eoin, I can keep a secret, if that’s your worry. At this stage, I don’t even know anyone in this town, for God’s sake. Do you mind? After a morning of talking about me, it would be nice to hear about something different.’
I didn’t mind. I would have made a pitch about serialising Peig Sayers if it would keep her beside me. ‘I think best in pictures,’ I said.
‘But you’ve nothing to draw with,’ she smiled, as from her huge soft red bag she pulled out a set of coloured pens and a chunky notebook. She laid it between us, and I began to sketch.
‘These are, say, four women and this is their TV journey,’ I said, as I traced a path for each colour, at different slopes, some rising higher and falling more sharply, all flattening out to lead off the page. Then I divided the paths with vertical black lines, labelled as Programme 1–7. We leaned over the page together. Putting on the glasses she had worn at the book signing, she looked full at me.
‘Well, Eoin Doherty, you’re lucky you met me today.’
I picked up her book with the Mondrian-esque cover.
‘Will this help me?’
She took it from me, and laid it beside her cup.
‘Now that you’ve bought it, of course. It’ll become your bible, and everything will be wonderful. But I’d rather talk more about your show. It could be a sweet number.’
‘You tell me how.’
She dropped a sugar cube into her coffee and raised the cup.
‘Here’s to your show, Eoin. Get it right; it’ll be a hit. And authentic.’
I wanted to believe her. The texture of her dress was one with the colour; definitely black, yet soft and light, a black I had never seen before.
Putting down her cup, she told me, ‘After my husband died last year I decided I’d take a trip we had long planned together, to revisit my childhood homeland – here, Ireland,’ she looked away, ‘and do some sailing here at the same time. My agent landed me today’s breakfast gig. He never misses a chance to unload a few books, wherever I am.’
‘I envy you. It sounds like you’re on the cusp of big success.’
‘Yes and no. Just now, I’m still tagged with the businesswomen and professional schtick. But I’m ready to move on. What I’m going to do next is to facilitate change for ordinary women, like battered and deserted wives, immigrant women, farmers’ wives from the outback and so on. The next move is to champion Native Australian women, when I put my mind to negotiating the obstacles.’
I started to speak, but she waved her hand to silence me.
‘Let’s get back to Ireland. Because you’re correct, now that you’ve had shows that dredged up the country’s hidden distresses – yes, even in Australia we’ve heard how the media is changing Ireland – it’s time for a deeper look at just a few stories, from self-selected women, not anonymous, but proud to be launched and speeded on their journey in full view. You’ll get the whole country talking again: not about victims this time, but survivors, explorers. Strong women. And I feel it, that Irish women are really strong.’
She took four white sugar cubes from the bowl and lined them up on the table.
‘Now, look, these are your volunteers, your participants. They’re really all the same, but look how each one wants to be bigger.’
She moved a second lump on to each one in turn.
I was enjoying how her hands moved around the table, her sharp-cut bob ended just below her ear.
‘Let’s see now…’ She chose four brown sugar cubes. ‘These can be the experts, the fixers.They probably should be two cubes high, though each will also be trying to tower over the others, and maybe one will succeed.’
She put a second cube on each of these, then a third cube on one.
‘Do you know what?’ I said. ‘There’s the show. There on the table. You’re right. We get the viewers rooting for the white sugars and, yet, entertained, exasperated and, even excited by the brown sugars.’
‘Well, don’t get carried away yet. Let’s think some more about it. Each of your women will have her champions. They’ll be popular with different sections of the audience. You monitor their progress: who rises higher, who plateaus out and who drops back towards the baseline. Ditto for your experts. Now, tell me, how does it work, the development of a new TV show?’
‘Well, if my pitch goes down OK, I’ll be assigned to work with a Development Exec, probably Andrea O’Dwyer. She’s a young one, new to me, I’d say not long out of college The word is she’s on the rise in the Light Entertainment Department. Together we’ll kick around everything about the show, add and subtract. If she approves it, then we meet with Brendan Devine, Head of Light Entertainment. He’s the Commissioning Editor. Also in charge of budgets. I’d have to pitch him the improved version – with Andrea’s help. He’d be a hard sell for me alone, at the moment. But don’t quote me on that,’ I added hastily. ‘But lookit, the participants will cost less and need less than actors. And they’re not just like the audience: they are the audience. The low cost of making the show will be on my side.’
She held my eyes, saying nothing. For a moment, I lost my thread: there was so much to notice, like how the blue-brown shadows of her upper lids led into her dark blue eyes.
I turned back to the notebook, drew a black arrow at the top of each vertical column.
‘These are the experts, the brown sugars. What was it you called them? The fixers? We’ve had them on some shows. They burst into people’s lives mostly to sort out neglected gardens or harangue them about diets. There’s an arc to each show, a satisfying one. Every programme ends with lots of contrived drama and questions, like, “Will the makeover be done in time?” or, “It looks good now, but is this really what she wants?” The participants are supposed to baulk a bit, but they’ll follow the advice, and it always works. I’m suggesting the fairy godparents to our Cinderellas should be a financial adviser, a fitness coach, a stylist, and a psychologist.’
‘More heavyweight. You need a three cube expert.’
She took the black pen off me and, at the top of the page, she drew a triangle, labelling the three sides Change-Choice-Chance. She touched each corner. ‘Life is played out in that space, Eoin. Start with any one of these words, and you bring in the other two.’
Smiling, she wrote something else on the page tore it out, and handed it to me. The paper felt like fine fabric as my fingertips found its nubbled texture. Expensive, as only recycled paper can be. Under the diagrams was a telephone number.
‘Do you know what my favourite quote is?’ Maggie asked, sweeping the pens into her bag and getting up to leave.
‘Who dares wins?’ I said, laughing.
‘The SAS. Not bad, but I prefer George Bernard Shaw: “The thing is not to find yourself, but to invent yourself.”’
I watched her elastic stride as she crossed the lobby. Held briefly in the revolving doors she looked back at me. The cardboard cut-out was gone. I was sorry. I’d have liked to go over to it, put my arm around her virtual self.
If Maggie hadn’t disappeared so quickly, she would have, a few minutes later, seen me in the car park. heading towards my much loved Rover saloon. It looked as smart as ever, just dotted with raindrops. But since I’d left it, everything had changed.The tarmac was glitterering after the downpour, I started to dance, playing around the edge of a ragged puddle, reinventing myself as Gene Kelly.
Maggie is running. Pushes herself a bit further every day. This morning, as far as Grand Canal Dock, and no letting up.
Lots of blossoms have fallen, though it’s only May. They soften her tread. The spring so far has been a washout, the locals say, as if it’s their fault. She wouldn’t have raised it with them. She knows all about Irish weather. She grew up here. The togs, thickened with sand, still wet, rolled up when they left Seapoint, the picnic teas eaten back at the kitchen table. Still, everyone does a lot of apologising – ‘What brought you back here?’, ‘You must miss the Australian sunshine? And the barbies, isn’t that what you call them?’ And her laugh is genuine. ‘Yes, but the sun can be dangerous also, especially for Irish skin.’
Running lifts her. Beyond the reach of sadness, damp or grey. She runs for the pleasure of it, the tingle. Once it was to get away, to outrun. With no brother or sister to protect her, she could count only on a turn of speed, on surprise.
This used to be her city. Scurries through the night in witch make-up at Halloween, men smoking on the tops of buses, Clanbrassil Street mostly boarded up. Now people do a lot of boasting, about how different it is, they point at the cranes on the skyline. She agrees.
‘Yes, there used to be sweet shops and cobblers,’ she says. ‘Now there are lots of delis instead. And now you can get espressos.’
She has other observations, with more of a scientist’s eye, of the hotel bar, full of high-complexioned men in double -breasted suits, their trousers drooping a bit too much over their shoes. Trying to score before they head home. Some chat her up, but she lets them see the two rings: a stop sign. They mostly turn to their true prey, the shiny young ones giggling at the end of the bar and tanking up before hitting the clubs.
Looser and louder than the Irishmen she remembers, and it’s sad, their need of reassurance from a near outsider like herself. That’s not what Eoin Doherty needs. His eyes say they like what he has seen. So does she. His hair artfully cut – apparently choppy, but showing off where it seems to start from a little whirl at the crown. A close-fitting cashmere jumper, without a shirt-collar, sets off the grace of his neck. A dancer’s poise in his movements.
Even he, though, can show a trace of that masculine sadness. Sadness, like the sadness of the chimpanzees in Dr Matthew Vernon’s lab. Part of her locking-up routine, doing a check just for the chance to stand amongst them, the wise faces with their long upper lips, the black nails, the brown tissue paper palms. The primate literature documented their capacity to suffer, their need for affection, their playfulness. There were evenings when she had a mad urge to open their cages and then the door to the outside world, but how did she know what was best for them? Anyway, she couldn’t do that to Dr Vernon. To Matthew.
Her secretarial course had offered a future of preparing insurance quotations, fire safety reports. Dullsville. But the stuff that Dr Vernon dictated to her was about chimpanzees – how they courted, mourned, played and especially, fought. By picking up a discrepancy in a report on orphaned baby chimps, she found a way to signal her interest and start talking to him, both at the lab and outside. He pointed her towards evening classes in The Foundations of Modern Psychology. She revelled in a new language, of observation and measurement, how to turn her curiosity into what Dr Vernon called good research questions. Coming out of class in the second week, she saw Matthew’s car across the street, waiting to give her a lift home. They talked about her assignments: how to monitor the behaviour of drivers at stop signs, how to memorise lists of unfamiliar words, how to eliminate bed-wetting in children. When she came top of the class in her final exam, he secured a small stipend and reduced her hours at the lab, so that she could proceed to a full degree. She teamed up with two other women who were also the first of their families to attend university. They parcelled out the course work and reading between them, then met up to share the learning with each other. The other two passed comfortably, and Maggie got a first. Immediately after graduating, she began to work with women on personal roles and self-development, using her practice as the basis for an MA thesis.
She was proud when Matthew told her that he needed two women to replace her at the lab. They were celebrating her conferring with a boat trip. As they stood at the rail, on their last night, he asked her to marry him. At their select registry office gathering, she first wore what would become her signature colours. A black dress, red shoes and a heavy gold necklace. They spent their honeymoon walking in Patagonia.
‘When I retire, we’ll have more time together, we’ll do more sailing,’ he said. But he never retired. After three years of marriage, one dreadful Sunday morning she found him in bed with a surprised expression. When she heard his jumbled speech, she sent for an ambulance. But blood had saturated his brain, and over the next two days while she spoke continually into his ear, he looked rosy and peaceful, but he was absent. He died before the doctors took him off life-support.
Maggie finished her PhD on the development of agency in disadvantaged women. Both her thesis and the book she based on it were dedicated to Matthew, whom she knew had little regard for that branch of psychology, but was always on her side.
Six weeks after the Burlington coffee, I was facing the Commissioning Editor, Brendan Devine, Head of Light Entertainment, and Andrea O’Dwyer, Development Exec. If, during those years in the UK, I had pictured myself pitching for a show in Ireland, it wouldn’t have been this way, or this show. I aspired to create programmes that dug deep, stirred and provoked. Programmes that would be cited as challenges to Irish society.
As he always does at the start of meetings, Brendan immediately began a huge Celtic tracery design, spreading from the lower left-hand corner of his page, all tightly wound, closed in on itself. He’s known for this, but today I kept my eyes well away from his convolutions. I’m proud of my heresy. Or is it treason? I consider the Book of Kells overrated. Besides, today, I had my own graphics. My page. My design.
Brendan called out, ‘Well, Eoin?’ with the air of never having seen me before. I looked back at him, but his stare was so stony that I was forced to cut my eyes away. Andrea’s face was quite blank. I could almost see the thought bubbles over Brendan’s head, saying ‘This guy has a history, he’s the one who screwed up over in London. He’s back here now, angling to get the contract for our women’s show.’ He knew why I was making this pitch alone, that I was under extra pressure, to win confidence and sell the concept. Some confidence. But, unseen below the level of the table, I was poised on the balls of my feet, like a featherweight boxer. He was going to see something else: that I was back.
I would show them.
I stood up, quickly touching my lucky tie, diagonal stripes of fawn and wine silk. Bought, extravagantly, with my first London pay packet, it spoke of a more spacious time in my life, and I fancied it could ward off perils, if not ensure success. As I walked over to the the flip chart, which I had requested instead of the high beam projector, I was also summoning a stronger charm: the canny spirit of Maggie, and her vision of how the show could fly. ‘You won’t put a foot wrong,’ she had told me, but I knew it was the last step that counted.
Both Brendan and Andrea seemed a very long way off as I drew and talked. I had decided to use the sugar cubes as props. It risked being too bizarre, too gimmicky, but at least it would be memorable.
‘We need white cubes, four women who want to reinvent themselves, achieve independence, and secondly, brown ones, experts in grooming, fitness, finance and personal life-planning.’
To seduce the two apparent sceptics, I sketched a drama of reinvention, of real heroines in transition, of emergence into independence, crystallised by a new financial situation. I made them see how it would swing the audience through highs and lows, an audience that would take sides, change sides between the participants and experts. Above all, how, in such a show, we could count on something spontaneous. I was showing some of Maggie’s fire. At this point Brendan was really watching. More risk. I played him in, slowly.
Brendan abandoned his tracery a third of the way across the page. That was unheard of. I sensed victory, but I held steady. Then I began to sketch my diagram. Andrea must have sensed victory also. She got very bouncy, and eventually jumped up.
‘I see a whole series of S-shaped curves here,’ she said, joining me at the flip chart and drawing an S lying on its back, forming a transition from one programme to the next.
‘Look, each participant will kick off, grab the attention, then swing down and up again. The same goes for the experts – the fixers, as you call them. It’s a classic product life-cycle.’
Andrea had a marketing background. She was well aware that Brendan loved that sort of stuff. It sounded scientific.
Maybe it was Andrea and her S-shaped curves, or the surprise impact of the sugar cubes, but Brendan approved it all. He needed only a few days to start agreeing specifics. These were summed up in a deal memo.
The title of the show would be The Fixers. It was critical to select the right sugar cubes, ones certain to grab and, at times, divide the viewers. First the brown: mentors to support and challenge the white cubes. The white cubes would be four women with contrasting backgrounds on the verge of huge change in their lives, just emerging from limiting situations. Over six weekly programmes, the show would enact their reinvention. The sugar cube code was beginning to catch on, to become a kind of insiders’ lingo. We also needed a nice fatherly man to anchor the show and a studio audience for a lifelike feel and to connect with the wider Irish public. I chose the right moment to ask if they would hire Maggie as a freelance consultant, to work with me on the selection process.
It gave me the excuse I needed to call her. When I finally got through, she sounded very close, very large, even though she told me she was in West Cork.
‘What are you up to there?’
‘Sailing all week, a new landfall every night, from Kinsale to Cape Clear, the best waters ever.’
I could see her moving deftly, as sweet and sound as the boat, her body reading the play of wind and water.
‘Listen, Maggie, lots has happened here. Everything’s getting warmer. The weather, the Light Entertainment crowd, the planning. I’d love to see you.’
‘OK, I’ll be back around five on Wednesday. Let’s meet later at Volare, and you can tell me all.’
Italian restaurants in Dublin used to be all dark wood and furry red on the walls. Volare, off Stephen’s Green, was different. The chairs were chrome and leather, the corners of the room each held a glass vase with slim bare branches. As I hurried towards the big window, its outside streaming with rain, I saw her. She was inside, sipping mineral water and studying the other diners.
The waiter took my coat and umbrella and led me to her table. Her black top was cut low, her skirt, also black, was crushed velvet. Turning to look at me, before speaking, she let a measured glance travel from my right foot diagonally up the fold of my trouser leg. Then, as I sat down, she whispered, ‘Body language is fascinating, especially in couples. Look how he’s pushing in the chair for her, and afterwards, he’ll hold out her coat. They hate each other.’
I laughed. ‘You scare me,’ I said, gesturing the waiter back as I sat down opposite her. She leaned playfully towards me and tapped my hand with the grissini stick she was nibbling.
‘I’m on bread and water so far. You’re going to have to make up for that.’
‘I know, sorry I’m late, no car tonight, but I’ve good news.’ I turned momentarily to the waiter, ordered two Camparis.
‘Ok, I want to hear it all,’ she said, ‘but I’m starving.’
She waved a menu at me, but I couldn’t hold back till we ordered. ‘The Fixers is probably going to be green-lit, for broadcast in the New Year.’
She laughed, leaned over, and caught my hand. ‘I knew you could do it.’
‘But, there’s more. You’ve a lot to offer to the show, Maggie, and I told Brendan so. I mean, the sugar cube thing, it was genius. You really twig where I’m coming from. I sensed it was the right moment to suggest that he take you on as consultant for the selection stage. If you’d like, that is.’
She looked at me for a bit. ‘You’ve already asked him?’
The back of my neck felt damp. I hadn’t meant to jump the gun, I was just afraid that I couldn’t build the show without Maggie.
‘I’d like,’ she said.
We came out of the restaurant to a sky of pewter and a great slash of orange in the west. I was tipsy, but I felt she returned my emotion as I took the chance to hug her.
‘You’re back safely, from the big ocean,’ I said, deep into her ear.
She pulled away, caught my face between her long hands and drew me towards her. ‘Steady on, young Eoin, it was a week sailing in a Drascombe Lugger, not a voyage to Antarctica. But it’s lovely of you to be so moved.’
I wanted to feel her hands moving over my brows, closing my eyes, tracing my lips. As a start.
Though she had rarely been out of my thoughts over the week, something new – maybe her bravery alone at sea – and now having her beside me on the show – was giving her yet more mettle in my eyes.
‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea,’ she said.
I was half remembering different lines also. Fragments from my Elizabethan Lit course.
‘“Rest after toil, port after stormy sea, ease after war… does greatly please,”’ I said. ‘There’s another bit in between…’ I looked away. ‘But I can’t think of it.’
‘Never mind your pedantry. It will greatly please’ – she laughed – and I knew what was coming – ‘if you stay with me tonight.’
Neither of us even mentioned a taxi. We wanted to take our time. The weather in our faces, we started to walk towards the river.
Like everything in the apartment building where she had just started living, on the tenth floor, the lift was new and high tech. But it was too slow for us, as if it had been the labouring iron cage in the small hotel where I’d stayed on a fifth year school trip to Sevilla, when I slept with a woman for the first time.
At the door, I took off my shoes and put them neatly side-by-side. To delay, at this threshold, was delicious.
‘I’ve no slippers,’ she said.
‘No worries. I’ll bring over a pair of house-shoes.’
‘What makes you think you’ll be coming in here again?’ she asked, laughing.
‘I always push my luck.’
She took me by the neck of my sweater and led the way to her bed.
Afterwards, she rolled away from me, onto her back, and did a curious stretch, pushing her shoulders and neck into the pillow and arching her back, so a little tunnel formed underneath.
‘I like the wonderful tiredness after sailing,’ she said. ‘Different from the tiredness of working indoors.’
‘I like it all,’ I said, watching her body flex, then exploring her arms, her back with my fingers. ‘You’ve got an incredible body, Maggie, so fit. Strong.’
‘Only because I stick religiously to the training Doris used to do with me.’
‘Who’s she?’ I asked, though I really didn’t want to change the subject.
‘Older, a first nation Australian, but the finest person I’ve ever known’.
‘Oh. Well, enough about Australia,’ I said, kissing her breasts. ‘Where’s the sweat and saltiness I’ve been dreaming of? Next time, come back to me without washing.’
She giggled. ‘I’d scare people on the train.’
‘Who cares… I’m just so happy our show is setting sail, both of us at the wheel.’
She closed her eyes and turned as if to go to sleep.
‘Helm, go about, bear away, running fix, cleat, gunwales, hawser, hitches, aloft,’ she dreamily intoned. ‘Sailing words. And, my personal favourite, ataunt.’
‘“Used of a sailing vessel, fully rigged, you might say shipshape.”’
‘Fully rigged, like our show.’
‘Exactly. Just like that.’
That was our time, our happiest time, when by day Maggie and I reviewed participant applications for The Fixers and at night, on the pillow, told our own stories. These tale-tellings were slowed by caresses. The warm feel of her body in my arms was new, quite different from Natalia. She told me about Matthew and his Primate Lab. I hated him for being eminent, for being privately wealthy, for being dead.
‘Sometimes, I’d be the last to leave his Department for the evening. I often stood there, with my hand on the mainframe, it hummed so loudly, I loved how the monkeys started up when they heard me coming, then relaxed when I didn’t move.’
‘How close are they actually to humans?’
Now that the question was out, I hardly cared about the answer.
‘We split from them about six and a half million years ago, and began to spend more time with our feet on the ground.’ She raised herself on her elbow. ‘But we’re still carrying a lot of them inside us. Especially their aggression.’
My mind wasn’t on the emergence of humans.
‘They were lucky to see you all the time,’ I said.
‘Do you mean the chimps?’ She was laughing.
I felt a little flare of jealousy.
‘I mean Matthew and the chimps.’
She looked at me quickly, with a flicker of a frown. ‘You’re seeing me now, aren’t you, in bed with you.’
I pushed back the crisp line of her hair and tipped her ear, first with my fingertips, then leaning in to caress her earlobe with the tip my tongue. ‘Not only are you fitter, you’re much better educated than I am,’ I said.
‘It all goes back to the secretarial course. I knew there must be more for me somewhere, and for other women, too. My doctorate was on life choices: women’s agency through role reinvention.’
Stuff like that freezes men’s desire, and she knew it. She smiled. ‘Don’t be put off by the jargon. By women’s agency I mean their capacity to change their world. Women long to be heard. My agony aunt column was syndicated across the nation. A continent of women surfaced: women finding their voice about alcoholic husbands, sons or mothers, one day old babies given away, secret affairs with married neighbours, crippling shyness, unreported accidents, postponed ambitions. I helped to scotch the myths about female incompetence.’
‘Easy on,’ I said, ceasing my kissing, and snuggling against her. ‘Less of the preaching.’ Inside, I envied her passion, her impatience. But I wanted her to know she wasn’t the only one with ambition. ‘I know I’m capable of making serious TV, making an impact also. State of Ireland programmes, investigations, exposés… The Fixers is grand in its way, but I see it as the last time I’m settling for entertainment. I’m after bigger game.’
Before we lost ourselves in love again, I tried to match the power of Maggie’s Matthew romance with the tale of my seduction by the bold girl in Sevilla, an American, who approached us, schoolboys sitting at a café terrace (too young to drink wine: in those days the teacher allowed only fruit juice) and picked on me, asking if I could fix her bike. I reacted before the teacher could, and I went with her like a shot. Surprise, surprise, there never had been a bike, but she arranged to come to my room that night. Then I listened for the stuttering lift to arrive, till – terrified that giggling or crying out would be heard through the thin partitions, thin like the greyish over-washed sheets – fingers on lips, lips on lips, our hands crept under each other’s clothes.
‘I wish I’d known you at seventeen,’ Maggie said.
‘I’m still that age inside,’ I countered. I moved her fingers over my face, ‘Feel how I carry the traces of fiery acne?’
‘Youth leaves its marks,’ she said.
Later, as Maggie showered, I arranged the pillows and opened the newspaper, untouched from the day before, at Damian O’Carroll’s column. Here, to my delight, he was on top form describing the two flavours of Irish cynicism. But the morning had been too strenuous: I got no further than the first paragraph. Postponing the rest of my treat till breakfast, I drifted asleep, with Maggie coming back to join me, freshly perfumed, nestling into my shoulder, and a soft damp breeze, with the smell of rain, blowing through the window.
From ‘Standpoint’: A column by Damian O’Carroll
We have left behind what Seamus Heaney calls the era of penance, and have now embarked on the full sea that is the era of permission. Few miss penance, but many are dismayed to find how permission has unleashed a measureless demand for things, commodities and novelty. We risk replacing a generation of hurt cynics (self-pitying, beaten), with a generation of smart cynics, (pitiless, brash).
Like most people around Dublin, I had often heard gossip about Damian. An immediately recognisable figure with his long dark overcoat, his sweeping waves of white hair, his past belonged to folklore. It was said that during his sojourn at the Sorbonne, he had taken a leading part in the evenements of 1968, while others dismissed that, claiming he had been no nearer to the action than the window of an apartment on the Rue St Jacques. He was said to have met Juliette Greco. He was undoubtedly a Francophile, and his familiarity with Catholic thought fed another story, that he had been ordained, and even served as Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Louvain. His unmarried status sometimes gave rise to comment, especially when he scolded parents for over-permissive child rearing. He enjoyed his contrarian stance and his success in provoking disagreement. Maintaining a habitually curmudgeonly demeanour, he was rumoured to be charming and gracious within a small circle of intimates, though I never heard anyone identify who these were.
As I walked into Herbert Park, Maggie was hunkered down at the edge of the pond, tracing the roots of a huge tree that had broken through the tarmac.
‘This tree will win, it’s stronger than the stuff that’s piled on it,’ she said. Carefully brushing the earth off her hands, she reached for mine, more in greeting than for support. To keep in step with her felt as natural as breathing – that, and the weight of her arm pressing my hand against her warm side.
I was brimming with my news.
‘I’m raring to go ahead with The Fixers. What a team, you and I.’
‘Now you’re like your old self,’ she said. ‘Cocksure.’
‘But we’ve only just met,’ I said, delighted with the word. ‘How do you know about my old self?’
‘From what you’ve told me, I know all about you, young Eoin.’
‘Oh God, the psychologist talking again.’
She turned and stopped my complaint with a quick kiss.
The Fixers had been assigned an office in the TV station’s building and here we worked. Though it was high summer, the sky was usually darkening by the time Maggie and I left, usually together, usually back to her place. I’ve always loved the pre-production stage of a programme, despite the thirteen-hour stints, the frequent crises, the helter-skelter sequence. It’s like the start of a relationship, sweet and heady, when the days fly past. The Fixers had taken off well and that was how I planned to keep it.
‘Quickly in and quickly out,’ I promised myself.
Applicants had been writing in with details of the juncture, the turning point they had reached in their lives and what their personal goal would be, if chosen for The Fixers. With questionnaires, then group interviews, we had whittled a large mailbag down to a longlist of forty. From these we requested a more detailed profile, to include a recent photo and one of the applicant as a child. I asked Maggie why the kid photos, and she came out with a load of pop psychology.
‘Childhood snaps are very revealing. They’ll help to fill out their stories.’
I looked sideways at her. ‘I won’t be in a hurry to show you mine, so.’
Maggie swiftly dismissed many of this smaller set of applicants. ‘This one’s aspiration is daft, this one is eccentric, all of these are dull, and her story doesn’t hang together.’
For the individual interviews, I worked with Andrea and Brendan. We listed in order each candidate who had the potential to be memorable, what I called rootable. The audience would root for them. Just as important, of the front-runners, none seemed too well adjusted. When she was professed as a nun, Breege Duffy had left behind a different Ireland from the one that she rejoined after laicisation. Since her early teens, Jacqueline McGrath was carrying a secret. Tracey Reilly came from a world usually seen on TV only in investigative reports.
‘I’m going for these three,’ I said.
‘Lots of material here, three great Cinderellas.’
‘Brendan will like the social and geographic balance too.’
Each had just taken a first step towards breakout, or what Maggie called their journey of reinvention. They were emerging, reaching for independence. Breege had left an enclosed convent some months before. Jacqueline came from a small town, where neither her parents nor her co-workers knew of her sexuality. Tracey had done time for shoplifting, and now wanted to go straight and support her baby son.
Maggie took a long careful look at the childhood photos.
Breege, in a print frock and t-bar sandals, leaned against a haystack, whilst her father and brothers lay on the ground drinking tea from milk bottles. Jacqueline appeared walking across O’Connell Bridge. In a little woollen cap, she was swinging between her parents, bending forward, as they all faced into the wind. Tracey was shown wearing her uniform shirt and navy jumper in a highly tinted school shot.
‘That must have been one of the few days she was actually in school,’ I said.
‘Now,’ I told Maggie, ‘to complete the line-up, here’s a woman that Brendan likes the look of. She’s South Dublin middle class, two teenage kids, just separated from her husband. She wants to set up a cake-making business.’
I handed her the form. In the photo, Susan was in her first communion dress, with a parasol, white gloves, newly set hair, and missing front teeth. The prettiest of the shortlisted applicants, albeit in an insipid way. The selection process had already taken longer than planned. To have a nomination from Brendan – and to go with it – would have lots of advantages. This show had to air quickly, and without hassle.
Her lips compressed, Maggie flipped several times between the photo and the written application.
‘OK?’ I asked. ‘How does she look for number four?’
For a moment, I wondered if Maggie was still in the room with me. She looked around dully. ‘What’s the hurry to pick all of them today?’
‘Look here, Maggie, we’ve a deadline. I want to make our recommendations this afternoon so I can get Brendan to sign off immediately. We’ve no fucking time to delay or retrace our steps.’
Was she dumb? Was my language too harsh? Was I getting too ‘cocksure’?
Maggie turned abruptly and hurried away.
‘Fintan, give me a cigarette,’ I heard her say as she passed his desk. He stood up, pulled a pack of Rothmans from his pocket and followed her. She crossed the lino floor to a little-used door that led out to a small tight concrete yard, a place of bins where discarded cartons were turning soft in the tumbling rain. There I saw her gulp the cigarette, where she stood half propped under the roof overhang. Fintan joined her in the impromptu smoking break.
Concerned, I followed them to the door, ‘Let me get you coffee.’
I was glad she managed a shaky laugh.
We had a running gag together about how she only liked espresso. To her, the canteen coffee was ‘bilge.’
‘What was all that about?’ I asked later, after she had come back inside.
‘Sorry, love,’ she said, putting her hand on my arm. ‘I’m fighting off a little virus. I had to have some fresh air. I’ll go to the doctor tonight.’
‘Would you prefer to call it a day?’
‘No, we need to find our fourth participant.’
‘I’m telling you we have her. Susan Reynolds fits the bill.’
‘The cake lady? She’s really bland.’
I got up and brandished Susan’s photo. ‘Exactly. Bland schmand. We need someone that the audience can identify with, someone that’s more mainstream. Andrea says participants should have partial fit with our audience, with the average profile. I agree with her. Most people won’t have joined a convent, or felt a secret attraction to their own sex, or nicked stuff from department stores, but many of them get married and raise kids, think about starting a little business and visit their mother in a home every Sunday.’
‘Maybe, but not her. She’s all wrong. Let’s just put her on the reject pile.’
Time was pressing. For the second time that afternoon, I felt exasperated. Now we were both standing, it felt more like squaring up.
‘Look. I’ve made the decision. She’ll play well against the other three. The audience needs one participant to have less intractable problems.’
‘She’ll stand out too much from the others.’
‘But that’s exactly what we want – a bit of friction between them. Susan will probably be very annoying. So much the better. The audience will start taking sides.’
Maggie looked at me and shrugged.
‘OK. If that’s what you’ve decided.’
‘It is. You get a decent sleep and I’ll see you tomorrow,’ I said, kissing her on the lips. ‘I hope you feel better soon’.
There was suddenly a wide space between us. What the hell was it about Susan Reynolds that could possibly spook Maggie? OK, she was pretty, but she wasn’t in Maggie’s league. Not even near. And wasn’t it Maggie herself who had said she wanted to facilitate change for ‘ordinary’ women? When I used to be baffled by inexplicable reactions from Natalia, I usually assumed it was a menstrual thing.
On reflection, I wasn’t happy about the scratchy way Maggie and I had said goodbye. Often with Natalia, I wangled forgiveness by timely offerings of food treats and gifts, so I stopped, first at Brown Thomas on Grafton St, then at a deli in Ranelagh, close to my own apartment, and drove over to Maggie’s with, among other goodies, prosciutto, ripe pears and a soft smelly Brie.
‘It’s Eoin. I’ve some nice surprises for you,’ I said, when she answered the intercom.
‘Is this bribery?’
‘Come on up then, it’ll probably work.’
The door buzzed, and I slipped through.
‘For you,’ I said, handing her one of BT’s distinctive camel-striped, black-ribboned bags. We were standing in her kitchen. The bag contained a pair of soft calfskin slippers, the only red pair I could find in the store.
‘But how come you chose red?’ she asked, taking the slippers out and looking pleased.
‘Just a wild guess,’ I said, laughing. ‘Believe me, it’s really sensual, to put on soft shoes. And we need to mark the crossing of a threshold.’
‘Well, less of the philosophy,’ she said, bending down to try the slippers on. ‘What else have you brought? You spoke of surprises. Plural. I see you have more.’
I stepped towards the shopping bags on the counter and parted the tops.
‘For starters we have melon. For seconds we have various antipasti. The main course is scallops, and to give the flavour of the sea to their sauce, samphire. For dessert… well let’s discuss that later.’
I winked at her as I took out one soft white medallion of scallop and held it under her nose, just to see how delightfully she wrinkled it.
‘I’ve never been so keen on eating stuff from the sea, as opposed to sailing over it.’
‘Yes, there’s a but. You’ve begun to convert me.’
She sifted through the green knobbly fronds of samphire. Studied the handwritten note on the label which said ‘Harvested fresh from the Norfolk coast.’
‘I’m still amazed, how, these days, the Irish are paying for what is essentially seaweed.’
‘You bet. This stuff has to be gathered by hand, and only those in the know can find the right places. You expect everything to arrive in a vacuum-sealed packet.’
‘That’s enough talk, Mr Food Snob. How about starting to cook? Anyways, I’ll amaze you one of these days with Anzac biscuits.’
‘I looked them up. Golden syrup and coconut, basic nursery fare.’
‘I’m a patriotic Aussie at this stage, so I won’t hear a word against them.’
‘What else would delight me in Oz cuisine?’
‘If you haven’t tried Vegemite, you’re in for a treat.’
‘I can hardly wait.’
We had, thankfully, skipped the subject of Susan but as I lay in her lap on the sofa, rain rippling across the big window, both replete, I told her about my Thursday fix: Damian O’Carroll’s column. I had brought a copy with me, and read it to her. At first surprised, she shifted to lean happily against me. Everyone loves to be read to.
Standpoint by Damian O’Carroll
A new TV programme, The Fixers, promises to show how ‘women are now active agents’, whatever that piece of babble means. Can these producers really mean that the women who helped to build our independent state, who reared strong families over the decades, were ‘robbed of their own lives?’ Are they serious?
‘Of course we are,’ Maggie and I said together.
Where once we admired people who were competent, now it’s more admirable to have been a victim, often of the ordinary hazards of living. Everywhere we meet a tedious obsession with the therapeutic. The women participants will be learning, not difficult skills but ‘fulfillment’. At this no one can fail.
After his return from Paris, Damian’s columns began to appear on an occasional basis in the Western Chronicle. He was later offered the spot for a weekly column on a national newspaper, a perch from which he ranged widely in comment on the condition of Ireland. At around the same time, he moved into a converted artisan house in Stoneybatter.
‘Up to now, he has rarely written about TV,’ I said.
‘Dunno. He avoids predictable topics. And may think it’s too Americanised.’
‘So you’re chuffed that he’s writing about us?’
I had to hand it to Damian. Now I had a critic as well as a comrade.
‘Let’s say, with an enemy like that, we don’t need friends.’
The Fixers was piloted with four experts, John, (finance), Morgan (fitness), Dymphna, (style) and Eleanor (personal development). They did some preliminary work with the participants, getting them to run through their goals, recap on some early experiences. At this stage, Brendan’s focus was on assessing the fixers rather than the participants. If he got the dynamic he wanted, the show would work.
But within a few days of the assessment, I was called urgently to meet Brendan. Andrea joined us.
‘Get rid of the psychobabble woman,’ he said. ‘She’s rubbish. Sounds like she’s reading out lecture notes from 1974.’
Andrea demurred. ‘Time is very short,’ she reminded him. ‘There isn’t a big pool to pick from.’
He said nothing for a full two minutes, just turned to stare coldly at her, then down at his notes. I felt sorry for her. I appreciated that she was committed to the show, was doing what she thought was her job. I just wished there was a way to signal to her to shut up, let Brendan do his thing.
Finally he broke the silence. ‘I don’t give a fuck. I want Eleanor out.’ Then he looked at me. ‘What about using your Aussie agony aunt? She’s a proper psychologist, isn’t she? Get her in here for a screen test.’
I was caught by surprise, and the obvious logic of it.
‘I’ll call her right away when we finish.’
‘Call her now.’
Maggie didn’t answer. I made an excuse for her, told Brendan I’d just remembered she was at the hairdressers. I then risked annoying him more, but I had to check: ‘So you’re happy with the show otherwise?’
‘Do I have to write it down for you? How can I make it any fucking plainer? We’ve already green lit it. But I’m not saying it doesn’t need lots of work.’
Andrea looked at me and mouthed, ‘Well done.’
She filled me in later about Brendan. ‘He’s quite jittery now, after trying to live down last year’s two flops.’
‘Oh, do tell. What were they?’
She winced. ‘You didn’t hear this from me. Remember, we’re the newest kids on the block. And last year – only our second full year – nearly finished us off. We did a drama series set in a design agency. Brands, we called it. The other was the rise and fall of a shambling folk group, Craicean.’
‘They didn’t work?’
‘They were megaflops. Slated by the critics, and more important, shunned by viewers. Really, really insipid.’
‘What will happen if this doesn’t turn into a hit? If The Fixers “megaflops”?’
‘You’ve heard of internal exile, Eoin. Siberia: I could end up on agricultural documentaries or shoved into silly costumes on the toddler slot. Or maybe washing dishes in the canteen. I don’t know about you. You might be glad to be given the the potato blight forecast, or the evening holy moment perhaps?’
Maggie slides further down, easing into the bath, into the unfurling of a whole packet of mixed dried seaweed from the health food shop. Seaweed has a value now; it’s advertised and sold. Bought by the newly-wealthy Irish, no longer just hard-won fertilizer for the small farmers, now a gourmet food.
When Eoin made her dinner the previous night, he told her the samphire was nearly as expensive as the fish, but she’d really love the sauce. She didn’t tell him she’d never heard of samphire. Sea asparagus, as he called it also. But she got to like the taste.
The seaweed opens out, slowly, many different shapes and colours. It shifts and bubbles. The bath looks like a cauldron, but the seaweed on her skin feels silky. She lifts one foot, draped in soft green, rubs her shoulders with a wavy blade of brown. Her face is running with sweat, the mirror is gone into a cloud of white. Now she massages her arms, slowly, while she thinks about Eoin, reconstructing him, describing him out loud, as if to a friend: his bedroom eyes and lips, cheekbones under a slightly bruised, ripe look. She is all strong colours, but his are not faint. Especially his cheeks – faintly rutted from his old fiery combat with acne. Life’s graffiti, he names it. Joli laid, was how some people would describe his look – beautiful but in an unconventional way – whereas, she was simply jolie.
He had once told her she has muscles like Madonna. Since he asked her to attend a screen test, however, Maggie feels less strong, as if she’s back in the schoolyard at the start of long break. When they called her over, she went. The four of them giggling. Then stopping as she drew close. The blonde girl held out a bangle of pink plastic beads. ‘These are our special bracelets. You can wear one if we let you.’
‘Yes, please,’ she said.
‘Naah, not today.’
Maggie won’t say anything to Eoin about all that, why would she? That’s that. Finito. She has delivered what she was asked to: a sign-off on The Fixers selection. She can leave it at that. How great to be just a spectator, one of the viewing public. And the show will be bigger than he thinks. Bigger and less gentle. She knows all about the potency of women.
Running more hot water, slipping down, knees bent, to let the weed slither under her, wash over her. Blowing bubbles through the drifting weed. It’s as if they’ve taken root, swishing in the tide. A different place, down here. Green, yellow, purple and brown. Seaweed is so adapted, anchored yet shifting, neither fixed nor unseated. She could live in these depths, suddenly rising up, like a sea-witch or sea-monster. A medusa. The French word for jellyfish. They are true survivors. Unchanged for millions of years. They know how to give and shift with the tide, never blown too far away yet able to move with the currents.
Her hairbrush catches a bright green tuft, already turning dry. Next time, she’ll drape seaweed everywhere; let it hang from her head, thick, dripping, tangled. Is she scarier if she rises slowly or fast? Now as the clouded mirror is clearing in patches, her look emerges in it, triumphant. A few different routines: hisses, stares, winks. A face to carry into her new scene.
Susan has just delivered fifty-six cakes to the school hall. Lots of her specials: blueberry muffins, banana scones and iced fancies. And cupcakes. It’s cupcakes she excels at.
Susan’s kids don’t attend this school any more, but the committee asked her specially to run a stall. They know this will be the last time. She has other plans for this year. In the meantime she enjoys sitting in the junior infants’ classroom, near drawings of smiling suns and people with arms coming out of their ears. Innocent scribbles like those make her sad. The fête is for a good cause, anyway. Disabled children. Horrible to think about any kind of disability, which to her means tiny heads, or big wobbling ones, thin bodies. The three babies that her mother lost before Susan was born might have looked like that. But as they were never born, they’re really perfect and she thinks of them flying around over her, like angels. It seems strange to talk about losing a baby, as if they were umbrellas left down in the wrong place. Mam was sure that, after Kevin, all the lost ones, were girls. Daddy didn’t want Mam to try for any more babies. But Mam had told Susan all about how much she had still wanted a girl. How she was sure Susan was different, that she would survive. The hovering babies would have watched Mam styling Susan’s little fuzz of blond hair that’s in so many photos, hair that her Mam smoothed or lifted with the silky hairs of a pink brush. Old things smell yucky, but that brush is still in her dressing table drawer, feels nice against her hand.
Leanne appears at the stall, interrupting her thoughts.
‘Just look at those cakes! Susan, you’ve made loads. My God, would you only look at the decorations. You’re amazing. I’d love to have the time. Can I try one?’
Susan isn’t sure if this song and dance about the cakes is really about Leanne pitying her. She hates it too, when other women rabbit on about how busy they are at work. Every time they meet, Leanne seems to be just back from Brussels. She is something to do with the Common Agricultural Policy, the boring stuff that gets mentioned at the end of the News. Not that Susan bothers much with the News, now that Cathal is out so often. They used to watch it together.
‘Quiet, the News is on,’ he’d say. ‘I need to follow the breaking stories.’ Susan loves most other things on TV. She can’t remember not having a TV set in her bedroom. No one else in third class did, and Susan’s Mam invited her ‘special’ friends to watch Sesame Street, and later, Grange Hill. Afterwards, Mam made them tea. Now Leanne is asking where Susan’s children are going to secondary school. Ciara is at Muckross, Conor at Blackrock. Leanne nods in approval, might go for the same schools when her kids finish primary.
‘And how’s Cathal?’ she asks. Susan tells her he is up to his eyes.
‘Well, where better to be than in the bank these days?’
Susan wonders if Leanne knows anything. Many conversations sound loaded. From women’s voices, she can tell that they know, and they think she doesn’t.
She’s not a fool, to swallow Cathal’s yarns about being more and more busy with all those golfing trips, to the Algarve and Marabela. It’s all OTT.
‘Not another trip,’,she’d say and when he saw she was upset, he’d go, ‘Look, love it’s the job, you know that.’
What she actually knew, she has known for ages, was that it wasn’t the job at all. But mention of the job, or ‘the Bank’, was always supposed to shut her up. Did, at one time, but not any more.
‘We have to keep our big clients happy,’ he’d say.
‘We? there’s no “we”: it sounds like you’re the only one.’
He was doing it all for her and the kids, of course. He did claim he was planning to pass some of the corporate entertainment on to a colleague, but that never happened. It was always a bad time, because ‘the Bank’ were just going to decide on his bonus, or the next person in line was away, or Cathal’s boss insisted that he was the right person to follow up, to clinch some deal.
Best not say anything to Leanne, not yet. But Susan’s still on cloud nine since spotting the ad for that TV show. She’d read about it in the paper some weeks ago as she waited for a trial batch of scones to finish baking ‘Go for it, take the chance,’ she told herself.
Before, she might have talked it over with Cathal, but this time, she just chose to mention it as he was rushing out. Maybe that way he might look at her. Not a chance. He didn’t turn round or stop for a minute, and later that night, not a word out of him. Typical. Probably forgot, or couldn’t care. Well, neither can she. Some days she’s sure she’ll be picked for the show. Other times, no, there’ll be loads of women in the running. And she hasn’t a clue what they’re looking for. Would it put her ahead, that she’s going for a new business set up? Live on TV, thrilling. And a makeover: the new Susan. Though you hear weird stories, too, about how a girl is going to sue the makers of one of those shows, on account of putting back on twenty-five pounds in a few weeks, and another one said the braces they paid for made her teeth rot. And Susan’s twins, of course they’ll hate it. It’ll be gross for their friends to know about her being on telly. Gross. Their word for everything to do with her. She often wonders where they went to, her babies.
Maggie has been feeling cold ever since she came in, but resists turning on the heating. It’s August after all. A soft golden wrap thrown on to the sofa, that’ll do for later. Just now she wants to eat: something plain and comforting. A poached egg, one of her few sure fire hits. The brand new kitchenware is being used often now, since Eoin started to stay over. He brings guinea fowl, couscous, hake. Once the water is boiling in the smallest saucepan, she tosses in some vinegar. No choice but to use the fine white wine sort. It feels like a waste, but the rough accompaniment to her mother’s dinners, the stinging malt vinegar she loved to sprinkle on chips, seems to be a thing of the past here. There’s a routine for poaching. First break the egg on to a saucer, then stir the fast boiling water into a little whirlpool, tilt the saucer to slip the egg in. Then gently scooping water till the soft glutinous pouch begins to fold, to close in protectively around the little globe of yellow. It feels creative, like working a transformation.
But today, her deftness has deserted her. The egg goes in arseways so that the yolk sac leaks into the water, quickly turning into yellow rags. It’s fucked. Just throw the lot away, make do by eating the two pieces of toast. Quickly, without sitting down. Then she goes back to the sofa, curls into the wrap. The line from Casablanca: ‘Of all the bars…’ Now it’s, ‘Of all the TV shows, why does she have turn up on this one?’ The bitch. Still simpering, still needy for attention. It sounds like she hasn’t changed. But Maggie has.
Eoin has started to use a kind of marketing speak and talks about this housewife being rootable. Maggie disagrees, but why would she care? She knows where the dark stain is, it’s like the trace of a leak on the ceiling, but it’s in peripheral vision. She doesn’t have to look at it. Today’s the day she’s going to exit the show, let the Fixers gig go, turn down the screen test, leave before things get any more muddled. For a long time she has managed to stay clear of muddle.
‘Have I come to the wrong country?’ she wonders. To the native land of muddle. Then she cops on to herself, begins her own agony aunt pep talk, about having all the options, about her power, the power of her look.
But today’s bombshell: The Fixers is in jeopardy. Eoin is shitting bricks since the psychologist, Eleanor, got shafted, and he’s still begging Maggie to take on the role, praising her know how, her balls, how she’ll fly through the screen test. Flattery. And bribery. Again. She won’t fall for it. When she quits, they’ll find someone else. They have to. Then she’ll be able to fully relish the gossip that Eoin will bring each night to her pillow, while she traces the rough texture of his cheeks.
Maggie wakens with a start. It’s a long time since she’s fallen asleep so early in the evening. And on a sofa. The curtains stand open, and the room is full of a gloomy watery light. On waking, the car is still in front of her eyes, the pale yellow Opel Kadett. Her mother has just parked at the school gates. In the sunshine, her hair looks wiry, the roots undyed. Why couldn’t she at least polish her shoes, dig out a cleaner jumper? She’s early today, worse luck. And with a cigarette burnt to a long ash, about to tumble. It’s not so bad when she arrives late, because then the little gang is gone. Today, they are staring and nudging as she waves to Maggie.
Next day, all the questions. ‘Was that your mam in that yellow car?’
Maggie hates it when someone asks a question when they really know the answer.
‘Oh. I’m glad my mam isn’t like that. And your dad, he never comes to school concerts or stuff. I bet he’s never around.’
‘He is, he is.’
Maggie used to try to tidy the house. Passing Guiney’s, she pulled at her mother’s arm. ‘The tea towels are reduced.’ Her mother didn’t pay attention to things like that, she’d be more likely to collect laburnum pods and hydrangea blossoms, sit on the floor with her to make a collage.
Maggie goes to the balcony, watches the cars leaping forward as the lights turn green. Green lit. The Fixers is green lit, Eoin is desperate that it happens, and the lead expert role is hers for the asking. She can name her terms. But he’s talking about the wrong currency. Leaning out for a while into the rainy night, she sucks in a lungful of air, and loosens a roar from deep inside her: ‘Let’s just see who’s most fucking rootable!’
Suddenly, she is sure. The show will go on. Eoin is out tonight. He’s gone ice-skating with his nephew, Nicholas. Tomorrow she’ll give him his wish. Only it won’t be for him, it’ll be for herself. Pillow talk is too far removed. It’s essential to be there, sounding the gong of pain. From close up. Staring. Freezing. No pity. She got none: why show any? She’ll do the gig. Keep it going for as long as it lasts.
God bless the old clichés: never a dull moment, Eleanor getting the boot with the show having to go on, we can’t let the women down, so on and so on. A real threat to The Fixers. Maggie had been doubtful about stepping in. I saw my fears like accusing figures looming at the end of my bed. I drew her towards me, as if to mimic how force majeure was bringing her deeper into the show.
Very lightly, she traced a triangle on my chest.
‘Choice, chance and change rule the world, Eoin.’
‘Don’t go all cryptic.’
She lay on her elbows, looking at me. ‘I’ll try for the gig, but there’s one condition.’
‘What?’ I said, suddenly afraid.
‘That I always have the last word, after the other panel members.’
‘That can be arranged,’ I said. ‘I’ll never forget this, you know.’
‘Oh, skip it, mate. Just give me the low-down on the psychologist role.’
I went on tracking some of the deep lines I loved best, , the crease below her buttocks, the curve above, her armpit.
‘Right, you’ve seen the formal job spec. Professional credibility is vital to Brendan, so play up your academic background. But we also need a TV performer. That means keeping up the tempo, drawing out the lessons, mediating the event to the audience.’
‘I know it’s not a foregone conclusion,’ she said.
‘Ok, so you’ll have to pass the screen test. But for presenters, looks matter most.’
She took her glasses from the beside locker and looked hard at me over them.
‘And what about my big brain?’
I laughed and kissed the inside of her wrist. Her entire body seemed to breathe. I remember asking her about her scent. Fainter now after the night, and mixed with a tender fume of sweat. Vert d’orange.
‘OK, OK, you’ve got it all,’ I admitted.
‘I still need some pointers from you.’
‘I promise,’ I said. ‘And I promise that this is the last time we’ll discuss business in bed.’
‘Power can be a turn on,’ she said, and reached for my hand.
I had meetings all that day, and didn’t hear from Maggie till around five, when she rang my cubicle. Not too many colleagues in earshot, but I still didn’t want to hear her news, there, in that wretched space. The lousy way it lacked a door.
‘Well? How did it go? Where are you? I’ll come to meet you outside.’
I guessed she had carried it off.
‘I felt happy, so they probably did too. They were certainly well informed. They did a lot of probing into my agony aunt career TV career and my book, Show Me.’
‘That was only the first one, wasn’t it? What about Up and Away and all the others you wrote?’
‘Let me tell you something, sweetheart,’ she said. ‘They were really all the same book. With a few tweaks. Now, if you can knock off, let’s get the hell out of here and find somewhere special for dinner.’
‘Oh, I meant to say it to you. We’re due at Gerard and Valerie’s. They’re dying to get a look at you.’
‘And to think I was hoping for a private celebration…’
I smiled. Everything was going to be okay.
As Maggie was changing in the bedroom, I looked around, glad that she was starting to unpack, putting up stuff, a few books now on her shelves. I took down a worn red hardback: Just William. Different in every way from the books kids are given today. The drawings dark and smudgy, the language eloquent, set in the drawing rooms and hedgerows of a class-ridden sunny English village. On the flyleaf, a message in copperplate handwriting.
‘To Cora, on your ninth birthday, with love from Dad.’
Maggie came in, wearing a dress of heavy black silk with a burgundy panel fitting closely about her hips.
‘Who’s Cora?’ I asked, waving the book at her. ‘Is it you?’
She stopped for a moment, smoothing her dress. I wanted to trace every crinkle and pleat of it. Then an elegant grimace.
‘You’ve rumbled my secret, Eoin. I dropped that name as fast as I could. Just for a moment, think about Cora with an Australian accent. ‘Cawra.’ An even worse sound than the Irish pronunciation, if that’s possible.’
‘I can hear it OK,’ I said slowly. I was weighing the many details I knew about her and this, which she had withheld. But it was perhaps not the moment to ask more. All I said was, ‘If it’s any comfort, you couldn’t possibly be Cora for me. Not ever.’
She touched my cheek. I held the book up again. ‘This is very important to you.’
‘You bet. I bring it everywhere. Dad used to read it to me, he loved William too. Happy or sad, I go back to it again and again. I’ve always identified with William.’
‘It’s Cora that interests me.’
‘I killed her off a long time ago. You’re looking at Maggie.’
I got the hint to back off.
‘We’ve plenty of time before dinner. Read me a page or two?’
She started the story in which a scowling William is forced to dress in white satin to be a page at his cousin’s wedding.
‘He gets lots of rejection, gets kicked, but always keeps his dignity. And his joie de vivre.’
‘You’re in love with William.’
She laughed and kissed me.
‘And I’ve to share him with lots of others, including his creator. But you I have all to myself, haven’t I?’
‘You’re full of surprises,’ I said. I didn’t mean her feelings for William, rebel and knight errant. I meant that when we chatted freely and happily, exchanging the stories of our lives, she had left out any mention of a large reinvention. When did she plan to tell me about Cora?
I’d almost forgotten the ease with which my brother and his wife entertained. That night, Maggie and I were light-headed with a sparkle born of fatigue. The weight and swing of Maggie’s black and burgundy number overpowered Valerie’s print frock, her habitual sort of nineteen forties look. Elegant enough, but pale. I’m still not sure how many black ensembles Maggie owned: I don’t believe I ever saw the same one twice.
They were delighted with her, right from the welcome kisses in the hall where light fell on to the parquet, light crinkled by the glass of the porch beaded with rain. She held out her long and careless hand to Valerie, then to Gerard who was waiting beside the drinks cabinet. The same routine, always, when they threw a dinner: drinks looking out on to the garden, then a move to the glossy mahogany table, laid with their Waterford – not glasses, but crystal, Valerie always said.
The curtains stood open to show Gerard’s specimen plants that seemed to float above the cunningly placed solar-powered ground lighting. Green and watery.
‘When did you put them in? You know you can be fined for light pollution, Gerard,’ I chided.
After the first course of baked aubergines, Gerard started to even things up.
‘So Maggie, has Eoin filled you in on his misspent youth?’
Maggie lifted a heavy napkin to her lips. ‘So far, some great moments, I doubt if I’ve heard it all.’
I was proud of her aplomb. My encounters with Gerard were as patterned as a dance. He slagged and I countered. So, I was quick to take back the limelight.
‘I suppose we’ll have to hear the old chestnut about the airport?’
I turned to Maggie. ‘This goes back to my second year in college. I worked a summer in the US on a J1. When I came home, Daddy and Gerard walked straight past me at the airport. Didn’t even recognise one of their own clan.’
‘Maggie, don’t be fooled. After the usual last minute cramming for his exams, Eoin made up for his few weeks waiting tables in Boston with a trip to Mexico. He went native there in about forty-eight hours.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Sure, I was smoking dope down there. Big deal. And I grew a drooping Mexican mustache. When I landed at Dublin, I had a big hat on, too.’
Gerard cut in: ‘Not big. Huge. And gaudy. La Cucaracha himself.’
‘I actually couldn’t get that tune out of my head. Just a bit of fun.’ My voice was tighter now.
‘Oh, great fun, but only now, looking back.’
I got in the punch line before he could. ‘I was jet-lagged, and OK, probably still stoned.’
Gerard interrupted again, ‘Anyway, Maggie. Daddy and I went out to collect him at seven am, while Mummy was cooking a full Irish breakfast. Daddy was furious that Eoin walked straight past us.’
‘It was you who walked straight past me!’
‘We had to race across the Arrivals hall to catch up with this apparition. Then it came out that he’d been stopped by Customs.’
My eyes met Maggie’s. The exchange was catching us both in the same way. I winked and she reached across to catch my hand.
‘I knew I was going to Dublin, it wasn’t like a Midnight Express moment. Anyway, they didn’t find the false bottom,’ I said, and got the laugh.
Gerard wanted to finish the story.
‘Mummy was shocked when she saw you. I seem to remember that you couldn’t face the full Irish. And later Daddy called you up to his study for one of his talks.’
‘Yes, brother, you do seem to remember a lot, but then, I seem to remember your own adolescence was pretty tame.’
Valerie disarmed us, ‘It’s up to Eoin to share his life story with Maggie.’ Then, as the hall door opened, ‘Oh, there’s Nicholas. Come in, darling, Eoin and Maggie are here.’
Nicholas, straight and thin in a black cotton martial arts outfit, shook hands with Maggie and embraced me warmly.
‘Hi buster, when did you start judo?’ I asked.
‘Karate. Just after we came back from London,’ said Nicholas.
‘What did you do over there?’ Maggie asked.
‘Eoin planned out a brilliant trip. We saw the Tower, Madame Tussauds and the Imperial War Museum.’
‘I admire your son’s poise, how he takes the initiative in greeting adults,’ Maggie said, after Nicholas had left us.
Valerie laughed. ‘Thanks, that is kind. These days, parents get so much stick about child rearing, how whatever we’re doing is certainly wrong.’
‘The worst are the ones who don’t have kids themselves,’ said Gerard. ‘Particularly Damian O’Carroll. Your bête noire, Eoin.’
Our little bout of slagging over, we united to have a go at Damian.
‘The great disapprover,’ said Valerie. ‘Of course, he likes to stir it up. He’s going on as if civilization will come to an end if parents and kids are friends.’
‘Being a friend doesn’t have to mean acting the kids’ age. He seems to mix those up,’ said Gerard.
Valerie continued. ‘Nicholas certainly sees Eoin as a friend, and no wonder.’
‘Oh, please,’ I said. ‘Let’s not go into it.’ One set-piece story was enough.
After dessert – my favourite, sabayon – Gerard took out an ornate bottle and carefully strained a white port into the decanter.
‘This is wonderful,’ said Maggie – and I added, ‘Praise indeed, she hardly drinks.’
‘But this is special, a gift from an appreciative client,’ said Gerard.
‘It’s a good thing you finally got around to opening it. A few more months and you’d have nothing but crust. We’d be sucking it like ice lollies.’
The four of us sat around the ruins of the dinner, till Gerard switched off the garden lights, leaving the darkness to press against the large window.
At the door, in the little flurry of our goodbyes, Valerie lifted the fringe of my silk evening scarf, deep blue with white polka dots.
‘Look, Gerard, how gorgeous. This is new, isn’t it?’
‘New and old,’ I said. ‘It’s from the nineteen-thirties, a birthday gift from Maggie.’
‘Valerie has a really good eye for bargains in vintage,’ said Gerard.
‘We must go shopping together very soon,’ said Valerie.
Sitting close to her in the back of the taxi, I prompted for Maggie’s reaction to the evening.
‘My parents probably sounded really staid to you. And Gerard and Valerie have led a sheltered existence. Nicholas too, that’s why I like to take him out.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I envy you your family.’
‘Knowing legions of cousins, and you’re easy with everything you’ve done, because,’ she stopped, ‘I feel you’re secure in what you are, all of you, whether you meet once a month or once a year. The put-downs come out as jokes, it all gets aired.’
‘So, you enjoyed the night?’
I couldn’t see her eyes, but heard the note in her voice.
‘When you all get together, you’ve really no interest in outsiders.’
‘They were interested in you.’
‘If they were, you could have fooled me. They just wanted to tell me about you.’
‘I’m sorry, love. Next time, I’ll steer the conversation around.’
‘Next time, I can do my own steering, thanks. Tonight I was watching and learning.’
I was already fading, so I didn’t ask what she had learned.
Lots of cake shops in the mall, targets for her market research. Still full of jizz from the drive. So brilliant, to drive fast and pass as many cars as possible without being passed herself. Once in the car she can escape from where she’s came from or where she’s going to, just herself and the radio or the CD deck, the lovely dashboard bulging with instruments. On trips with Cathal and the kids, she does all the driving, even if it’s over on the ferry to Fishguard or Le Havre. She wishes that she’d had the courage, just once, to one day belt him into the car, and decide herself where they were going.
Take lots of time, stroll around the mall, with no need to buy anything special. But it’s fun looking at the interiors shops. Once, lots of plans to do up people’s houses as a job, but that was before the twins happened, and Cathal and herself got married.
Big packs of luxury crisps call to Susan from the shelves. She manoeuvres down three. Sea Salt and Chilli. The twins like them too. If Cathal looks for his favourite flavour (Blue Cheese and Bacon), she’ll tell him they were out of stock.
She’s looking forward to seeing Fiona. The two of them go way back, even pre-Cathal. And Susan has awesome news. Fiona is joining her for coffee, to hear all about the interview and being selected for The Fixers, which means ‘I can get advice for my cupcake business. It’s cupcakes I’ve decided to do. It’s like free consultancy. And publicity on prime-time TV. They could be on sale here. All I need is the tips and the encouragement.’
Susan is sure, now, that she really is a businesswoman. It will be so worth it, to get on a TV show.
They sit down in the plaza and order. Fiona is very impressed about The Fixers, but mostly wants to hear what’s going on with Cathal. After all, she introduced them. And she was Susan’s bridesmaid. She cuts to the chase.
‘I think you’re really brave to go public about your marriage. Lots of women wouldn’t.’
‘That heel, that slime ball, on about bringing us on a special holiday this year, me and the twins. I told him I was getting browned off with the Costa. All the invites to drinks and barbecues, those wagons all mad to show off their holiday homes. I don’t lose the extra stone till Christmas. I would much prefer to go shopping in London and see my old pal there. Take the twins on a tour. But he kept rabbitting on and on about the kids needing to keep up their water skiing and sailing in the Med, and getting value from our apartment. “Sure they’re not really keen on coming with us at all,” I told him – you know kids these days, only wanting to hang out with their friends, not their parents. But then he had a talk with them and they went, “Dad has booked a fantastic sailing course and we’re allowed to bring one friend each.” They couldn’t wait. I did get in a dig though: “And another thing, isn’t it a busman’s holiday for you, you’re that often in the south of Spain?”, I told him.’
‘Good for you,’ says Fiona, ‘What did he say?’
Susan shrugged. ‘Nothing.’.
On their last night in Marbella, when Cathal came back from golf about five, as per usual, he went: ‘Now love, once I’ve showered and changed, we’re off to the El Torre. Don’t worry; I’ve booked for nine and I was lucky. Miguel is keeping me our usual table.’
‘Yawn,’ Susan says as she tells Fiona. ‘We couldn’t go to the local café for breakfast without him spoofing about how great the service was. Just had to keep talking. No silence allowed. He’d be all thrilled when they remembered his name: no surprise, with the way he threw money around. “Muy Buenas, Señor Rayno.” And he’d go “Buenas Tardes, Miguel or Pablo.” Pathetic.’
He had been really attentive; pulling out her chair for her before the waiter could, holding her coat for her afterwards. Big fucking deal, Susan thought, what’s he looking for?
They’d been out there for a fortnight, so at this stage, she had nothing, zilch, nada to say, only bits of news saved up for the evening, like about what she’d bought in the market, mostly lace, (she has stacks of embroidered tablecloths), and about the women having early dinners in sarongs by the pool, laying into the vino. They were usually Irish, married to guys he might know. He’d never any interest in the locals. She’d tell him bits and bobs, especially about their husbands but she’d leave out loads too, of course. Just like when they were at home. Mostly the husbands weren’t around. On Friday nights, they’d show up, straight from the airport, in their suits, with ties stuffed into their pockets, ready to spend ‘quality time’ (here Susan makes the quote sign) with the family.
Fiona is stirring her latte with a long spoon.
‘It must be kind of tough for them, all on their own back in Dublin.’
Susan snorts. ‘Are you joking me? Take Cathal: getting lots of brownie points, but lonely? Give me a fucking break, Fiona.’
Susan has known from way back that he had other women. The second credit card that he didn’t think she was aware of, the way the phone rang and then stopped, calls that he used to take outside. Sure also, from some of her friends’ voices, that they knew and they thought she didn’t. And they didn’t have the guts to say it to her.
‘Don’t let your cappuccino get cold,’ says Fiona.
It comes back to Susan how in El Torre, after Cathal had finished chatting up the head waiter, he ordered a huge platter of shellfish. He always ordered the same thing.
Then he went, ‘Let’s talk, pet.’
‘We haven’t done much of that recently,’ she said.
He was really shamefaced, but the slimy smile was in place as he told her he’d fallen in love, and he wanted her to give him a divorce so that he could marry this ‘other’ woman. She doesn’t know the woman’s name, he won’t tell her. Though she screamed at him, ‘Is it the one you’ve been seeing all this time? Does she realise she’s breaking up a home? How can she live with herself?’ But he didn’t answer, just told her to calm down and not make a scene.
‘I’ve found out she’s a tax consultant. I’d like to let her know the kind of shit she’s getting. I bet she’s a wagon herself.’
Susan fidgets, twisting one of the little tubes of sugar till it breaks, scattering grains over the table. She smooths her skirt.
‘He’s leaving me just as I’ve reared his twins, and seen him though his bank exams. I always let him off doing work around the house, just like the Costa wagons did for their husbands I did everything to keep it all nice for him and the kids.’
Fiona exhaled loudly and brushed the sugar off the table. ‘How are the twins taking it?’ she asks.
‘The worst is they’re acting as if I’m kind of over, like they’re really independent now and they’re sort of siding with him. To them, our marriage wasn’t working for years anyway, so basically they didn’t think I’d mind all that much. And he’s the one with all the ready cash, after all.’
That’s all the thanks she’s getting for the driving to rugby and ballet and parties all over the Southside and discos and PTA meetings and the trains for their Gaeltacht and the fortune she spent in New York on their Abercrombie and Fitch gear. Lots of other marriages she knows of are in trouble, but the women mostly have careers or lovers or loyal children. She’s now owed lots of me time.
‘Well, at least you’re moving on,’ said Fiona. ‘You got picked for The Fixers. That’s fantastic.’
‘Big time.’ says Susan, standing up. The spilled sugar feels crunchy and sticky under her shoes.
At daybreak, the morning after our family dinner, Maggie and myself took our coffees over to her desk. I summed up what was decided for The Fixers. The first and last programmes would bookend the show, blocking in the reinvention process. On the four shows in between, we would first show one expert and one participant negotiating tasks in outside broadcasts, followed by a segment in the studio, with the audience, to review their progress. Maggie was, by now, relishing the chance to probe the women’s plans, apply reality checks.
At the launch of the autumn-winter schedule, I saw Damian O’Carroll at the edge of the crowd, feigning indifference to the photocall. I caught his eye and he nodded. But I had little brain space to think about Damian. We were introducing the panel, showing little clips from the pilot. Each Fixer had their game to play, as each sought to highlight their vital importance to the show.
The financial fixer was John O’Brien, a seasoned performer on TV. I remembered that I used to be fascinated by his gaudy ties. John could sound very pleased with himself when advising heavily indebted young couples or the owners of faltering cafés and toyshops. His approach was to craft a plan jointly with them, coming back later to berate them when he found they had strayed from their agreements.
‘Ladies are often at sea regarding finance. I look forward to starting them off on the right track.’
As I cringed at John’s gaffe and the criticism it would unleash, I was also gambling that we would survive a small storm at this stage. We did. That burst of publicity was actually welcome. How tame it now seems, his sexist comment, raising choppy waters at the harbour mouth, whereas, later, on the full seas we were to face a screaming gale.
Morgan Delahunty wore one of his series of smart sweatshirts, shorts and trainers, where small touches of navy trim made the white seem even crisper. He held his profile tilted at the ready. ‘Eat right, get active, that’s what counts.’
Though he had done TV ads for his coaching in a new city centre gym, he was not used to TV and would need help with camera angles and probably pacing.
Stylist Dymphna Kirwan did what I told her. She should be a good player, speaking about her passion for releasing the potential of her clients, of finding their own unique style, and transforming them. You could almost believe her.
‘Every woman wants to go to the ball, whether that means to get the job of her dreams, or start to look stunning.’
Dymphna did a lot of hugging, but was also well able to put up a challenge.
Maggie was the last to speak.
She hadn’t told me how she’d introduce herself. I had a little shiver of fear: what if she came across as too much of a smarty-pants? Then I relaxed as she seduced them all. She spoke very briefly, enough to suggest that she had arrived just in time to help cut a path through the tangled foliage that surrounded Ireland, to release us from a long slumber.
‘In Australia, where I now live,’ she explained, ‘many people don’t have English as their mother tongue, so we all have to speak very simply and directly. That’s how I’ll be addressing these four brave women. If my style sounds rude to anyone, I apologise, but I have to say that we Irish have a gift for making things complicated.’
At this early stage, we didn’t give away too much detail about the format. In the first programme, Maggie would lead the interviews in which each participant would outline her ultimate goal. Subsequent programmes would give a fifteen-minute segment on each participant: first, a package of pre-recorded sound bites of the chat of one pair (fixer-participant), during the previous week. That would be further consolidated by a challenging studio discussion among the Fixers, what Padraig called ‘putting them through their paces.’ We settled on Climb Every Mountain as the signature tune: a naff oldie, but as Maggie said, it was all about the way Shirley Bassey belted it out.
It was important to house the four women together, in this case, in a bungalow in Delgany, outside their normal environment and routine. Then the show needed a host and anchor. I knew the very man for this was Padraig Mc Nulty. He had long been on the staff of a major broadcaster, but of late it had proved more and more difficult to find a role for him. In his time, he had hosted beauty competitions, presented late night easy-listening programmes and afternoon shows aimed at seniors. Now having taken early retirement, The Fixers had come along to tempt him back into yet another lease of professional life. His hair was now strawberry blonde and under his blazer his pink shirt swelled gently. Padraig would introduce each programme, summing up the work done since the last one and do brief after-the-fact interviews at the bungalow, capturing snippets to lead to the next programme. He could model for the audience a sense of daring in treating a petty criminal and a lesbian woman on equal terms as a former nun and a respectable housewife. I reckoned that he would share the reactions of the majority, whilst rating himself as extraordinarily broad-minded, helping to match and shape the audience reaction.
Maggie encouraged me about my decisions: ‘You know when to go with your gut.’
Padraig’s career, like my own, was about to be propelled into a new phase by The Fixers. The careers of panel members also. Maggie was easy about it all, but Morgan, Dymphna and John were jostling for prime position in the shop window.
It was Thursday, and in the open plan office where I tried to establish a boundary around my desk, I was keeping my head down below the partition, to savour Damian’s column.
Standpoint by Damian O’Carroll
We hear ever more of the clichés: ‘me time’ offers only the chance to consume more, self-expression is equated with facials and massages and diets, all obvious, all surface. With a world of marvels all around us, we narrow our gaze to our own small selves. Stars of the cinema once loomed, filling the screen with their huge lips and eyes, their glossy tresses, as remote and alluring as the celestial bodies. Their bold reach, their doomed love, rendered them gloriously different from us.
Though Damian belonged to a different half-generation, I was totally with him about the movies. I too, knew all about the thrill of those moments when the shaft of light cut through the dark cinema and the screen brightened, initially full of tiny dancing scratches and specks.
The staple of the promised new season, makeover TV personages, are, au contraire, just like us: meagre, everyday figures. They are myopic, prating about ‘making over’ and ‘starting over.’ They don’t face misfortune strenuously so much as sidestep its meaning. It is modish to have suffered difficulties, but also to cure them through a practice of ‘sharing’. This profoundly irritating term belies any true communal meaning. Nor should we be misled by a superficial resemblance to genuine confession. The source is identified, goals are set, and then all responsibility is lifted. Apparently, pain once held close within the family circle is to be broadcast to the entire nation, with frequent and detailed rehashing of every mundane setback. The motto is ludicrous ‘If I’m not happy, then something must be done, someone must be held responsible.’ Not being totally happy entitles people to blame someone else. Instead of decent dignity, reserve in the face of adversity, now the route to being famous is to spill the beans in public.
It seemed that for him our little show was heavy with significance. All the better, let him keep comparing apples and oranges.
Rumour had it that Damian’s mother was unmarried and had struggled to support him by working as an usherette in the Metropole Cinema He might have done his homework in the little space behind the box office and then moved into the pulsing dark to watch the latest movies, till her shift ended and they walked together to D’Olier Street for their bus. It was in the Metropole that he first saw Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Deborah Kerr, James Mason and Robert Mitchum. His mother was surely proud when he got a place in a leading Jesuit school, presumably on a scholarship. From the Jays he probably caught a passion for Europe and its languages, the procession of its history.
Someone said that everything comes out in the end, and none of it matters. Maggie would love to believe that last bit, but she doesn’t. Cora does matter. But she’s not ready to talk about Cora. Not yet. The name is a loose thread: if she pulls, much more will unravel.
Valerie has not been slow to arrange a trip to the vintage shops. Maggie normally shops, as she does much else, in lone-wolf mode, but now Valerie and Gerard need more of a handle on her, to place her on their map. A knack for scouting, picking up bargains in vintage shops will do. Valerie arrives slightly late, and full of a spiel about parking, at which Maggie smiles and shrugs. The vintage shop is long and narrow, smelling of old well-polished leather thanks to the shoes and satchels. Too much stuff in the world, Maggie thinks. They sift through the trays of costume jewellery and stacks of LPs. Gorgeous Fifties jazz – Hot Club de France – is playing on a turntable. Then, into the depths of the shop, to the rails of frocks, wide linen skirts, strange ball gowns. Maggie gives her verdict on two sprigged prints that Valerie tries on. ‘Not quite you.’ But Valerie picks up a locket, red gold, for which she will buy a chain elsewhere.
‘Perfect for my friend’s fortieth. I knew we’d have a lucky shopping day together.’
She takes Maggie’s arm as they go for tea.
Not until her short years with Matthew had Maggie lifted the watchful stare with which she faced the world, but now, sitting across from Valerie in the tearooms, she starts to feel sisterly. She holds her face in the Earl Grey scented steam from a wide white teacup.
‘I’d like to hear about Nicholas and Eoin, their special friendship. After our dinner with you, I asked Eoin about it, but he fobbed me off.’
Maggie wonders if most of the family folklore is about Eoin, or just the samples she hears. Like the Mexican yarn, the Eoin and Nicholas episode Valerie tells her is probably always available, a story shaped and smoothed through retelling. There are more cousins in the story, and a well-organised picnic, the last one of that summer, in a favourite place, Djouce Wood, on the foothills of the Dublin Mountains.
Valerie paints the scene: the day warm enough to leave the rugs spread late into the evening. She was gathering up the picnic things, Gerard beginning to snooze, Eoin playing donkey with the older kids, when from the three-year-old Nicholas there came choking sounds, as he reached towards his mouth. Eoin racing across the rug, trampling the spread. Eclairs stuck to his shoe, afterwards. He struck five sharp blows on the child’s back, followed up with five hard thrusts from his linked arms, till it shot out: a fat black grape. ‘Nothing more serious than bruised ribs,’ they said at the hospital.
‘Now he and Nicholas are great pals,’ says Valerie. ‘Eoin is very generous, he brought Nicholas to London for his twelfth birthday.’
As his mother talks, Maggie is reflecting on that unfamiliar being, a child. Impossible to read. No chink in his composure. A slender boy, with the indolent physical growth, the potentiality and enigma of it, of whom she later said to Eoin, ‘I bet that’s what you were like at his age.’
That night – sitting between Eoin’s legs – she also tells him, ‘I’m proud of you.’
‘A bit of luck, really. I had just finished training in the Heimlich manoeuvre. Somehow, as Gerard carried him to the car I knew he was going to be all right.’
‘You’ve heard, of course, that in all the folk tales, if you save someone’s life, you’re bound to them for ever?’
It stirred her to see Eoin with his family. The world they lived in was webbed with stories, with entitlement to love and approval. Valerie’s little murmurs of doubt about Nicholas getting in with the wrong crowd, or trying drugs, Gerard losing out in the struggle to become a partner in the firm, are mere form. They had asked her little about herself. Not from bad manners, rather because their immersion in their own world, the schools, the neighbours, the legions of cousins, was so complete. Had they welcomed Natalia in the same way? After all, she was in Eoin’s life for a couple of years, though apparently his visits to Dublin were few in that period. She works the conversation around.
‘We all noticed that Eoin turned into a serious cook, and Gerard was amused by the indoor shoes regime,’ said Valerie. ‘That was all her influence.’
Maggie smiles, but the Eoin story she really wants to hear is different – was it Natalia or Eoin who made the move to break up. And especially: what did they think of Natalia? It was tempting to suss Valerie out, but not feasible. Not yet.
As for serious Nicholas, with his dark red hair, nothing too serious will ever happen to him. He might have to repeat his Leaving Cert. He might break his ankle on a skiing trip. His life is a charmed one. And then, Eoin saved him and, therefore, so is Eoin’s. She envies him that bond with the blessed world of the young.
When people tuned into The Fixers that first evening, the seventh of January, they had been primed by a series of intriguing trailers and ads, all inspired by Maggie’s vision. It was to be a show with a difference, played out weekly in front of their eyes. They were promised the usual fireworks – tears, setbacks, nerves. But Maggie’s promise was bigger. There would be something else. Not just the sadistic pleasure of seeing people make fools of themselves, but also the possibility, small as it might be, of seeing someone actually emerge, actually fulfill a lifelong dream, actually give hope to the viewer who also harboured a dream. A lot of dreamers tuned in that night.
Before the transmission of the first programme, I was counting on the arrival of our four women at the bungalow to give us some great footage. I wasn’t disappointed.
Of course, the public had already seen snatches of the four, in little trailers, covering their ages, (eighteen to fifty-one), including sound bites from their homes (Crossmolina, Portarlington, Finglas and Cabinteely) and exploring why they had applied to the show, as they appeared in familiar surroundings, wrapped in their everyday lives, lives that were going to be totally transformed. The Fixers kicked off as a courtesy car came through the gate, then swung to the left, stopping parallel to the front door, where Padraig was waiting. Jacqueline hesitated before she got out of the car. It seemed for a moment as if she was going to tell the driver to turn around and take her back. But Padraig came forward, and in a characteristic gesture, took both of her hands in his, and stayed, as if marvelling, addressing words of welcome to her, the first arrival. As she looked in surprise at his greeting, I was suddenly aware of her tomboyish, 1950s young-girl quality and made a note to bring this out. Letting go of one hand, Padraig guided her to the porch, where he continued a one-sided conversation until, after what seemed a long delay, two cars arrived almost together. Tracey, perky, nearly jumped out before her car had fully stopped. By then the rain was heavy, so Padraig (who does he think he is, Sir Walter Raleigh?) hurried forward with a huge pink and black umbrella – these being already designated as The Fixers’ colours. He stooped protectively and lowered it over Tracey’s small figure. Tracey, giggling in answer to the driver’s goodbye: ‘Have a vodka and Coke for your nerves,’ threw back, as she took out a cigarette, ‘Might make me worse.’
Then Breege, insisting that she would manage, she would carry her own suitcase. ‘Sure I’ve only the one.’ But Padraig graciously led her into the shelter of the porch with a hand under her elbow.
The whole scene was reminding me of that discomfort at the start of a children’s party, especially when Susan arrived last, with a big smile and wave for the cameras, which she alone seemed to acknowledge. She looked around as if seeking a larger reception party than the stately Padraig and the three other participants who were waiting at the bungalow door. To transfer her luggage – apparently heavy as if full of stones – took two trips by the driver. In the hall, the camera followed Susan’s glance towards the rest of the luggage, and a little wiggle of her hips, as she took in Breege’s floral patterned suitcase, all dull pinks and greens.
‘God, we don’t have to go hiking surely?’ she asked, on spotting Jacqueline’s sensible black North Face rucksack. I took her point. Tracey’s chequered bag bulged at the side, a half-closed section revealing soft toys peeping out, their little arms dangling. The line of luggage was doubled in length by Susan’s set of graduated cases in distressed turquoise and covered with travel labels.
After a pointed look from Padraig, Tracey crushed out her cigarette on the porch. He gathered the four of them into the pine-panelled kitchen where he settled them around the table for tea and pastries.
‘Now forget about the cameras. Just act natural. We’ll let you know any time they’re rolling.’
He beamed around the table. ‘Well, girls, are you still in shock? Or has it begun to sink in at all? You lucky ladies are the special ones. Do you know how many hundreds applied to get on this show?’
‘No pressure, wha’ Pa’raig?’ said Tracey.
‘The whole crew is here to put you at your ease,’ he assured them.
‘I’m happy out,’ said Breege.
Padraig stood up, and while they all looked towards him, speaking from the head of the table, he made a meal of opening the first house meeting. It did not go smoothly. Breege continually brought the others in by name, her head bobbing. ‘That’s right, Tracey; you know, Susan.’
Susan kept a fixed smile, Jacqueline spoke only to Padraig and Tracey changed her earrings, choosing a pair of large hoops, thin as wire. She won’t do that at the table again, if Susan and Jacqueline have their way.
Padraig outlined the rules. They were supposed to stay in the house in the evenings. In the course of the week, what were called ‘residential sessions’ would be filmed, where each of them in turn worked with one fixer. Clips from these would be shown and analysed at the extended sessions broadcast from the studio. They would have outings connected to their tasks, like shopping trips with Dymphna, fitness training with Morgan, and ‘of course, meetings about your financial future.’ For these, John would be there to handhold them. Questions broke out. Jacqueline wanted to know how much free time they would have, Susan whether they had to hang out together and Tracey what time they had to get up at.
Padraig opened the fridge from which they could help themselves at any time in the day. He indicated how well stocked it was with yoghurt, mayonnaise, desserts – and the freezer with potato wedges, pizzas, lasagne, curries and ice-cream. To assign bedrooms, he told them, ‘Pick a number from one to five.’ Once her choice of four had put her beside Tracey, Susan immediately raised difficulties: something about her asthma and being a light sleeper.
‘I have to be in a quiet room. I see you’ve got lots of CDs.’
Breege immediately offered to change places with Susan: just as well, since Jacqueline had said nothing. The camera followed them along the corridor, and caught how Jacqueline shut the door of her bedroom. Little encouragement for anyone to come calling.
Padraig reminded them that there were only forty-eight hours to go until the first programme aired. ‘When you’re on camera, look like you’re enjoying yourselves. No one wants to see sourpusses. Remember the experts, the fixers, will be putting you through your paces, so think positive and speak up.’ He looked across at Jacqueline.
A few quick reactions to their first day – straight to camera – made up the package with which I would finish programme one. There was the episode of Tracey smoking. ‘I told her: out – now,’ said Jacqueline, and got an answer they would often hear: ‘Not a bother.’
‘She did it on purpose, kept traipsing in and out, for a coat then an ashtray. She left the French doors open every time, so we were freezing,’ said Susan. ‘Even Breege asked her to stay put. She’s getting on everybody’s nerves.’
Worse was to come on the following night, though for me it was actually better: friction. After Breege had again cleared away the evening meal, Tracey waved goodnight, with a ‘See you,’ and what Susan described later as a ‘bold face on her.’ There was a taxi at the door. She hadn’t said a word to Padraig, just headed for the pub by herself, because none of the others would come along.
Breege started to explain about the last time she packed.
‘That suitcase hasn’t been out of the wardrobe since the day I joined Holy Redeemer. It was the same one I had earlier, over in California.’ Susan showed no interest. Her mind on her own belongings: she was worried about security.
‘Why is that?’ asked Breege.
Susan sounded surprised. ‘Well, after all, Tracey has a criminal record and I wouldn’t want my business plans going missing.’
‘Now, now,’ Padraig interrupted. ‘The camera crew are here to make you look good on air. They do wonders. But your attitude is all-important.’
‘Dymphna is going to talk to us about our look,’ said Susan.
‘No better woman, she’ll see you sorted,’ said Padraig. ‘Just remember, don’t wear anything with stripes or logos.’
The first morning I was up at five.
‘I’m a bag of nerves, Maggie.’
‘You bet you are, sweetheart,’ she said, watching my hands shake as I filled my coffee cup. ‘And you don’t even have to face the public. Think of how the participants feel, and the other brown sugars, my fellow fixers. Anyway, I’m going for a run, best cure for the jitters.’
‘But it’s going to rain,’ I said, looking at the sky, which was the colour of a new bruise. The light outside was strange. A chilly, oppressive day.
She waved back from the door.
‘Just make sure there’s a really delicious breakfast waiting for me.’
I picked up the intercom and heard Maggie’s voice, breathy.
‘Sorry, baby, I forgot my key.’
When she entered the kitchen, warm and trembling, we let the breakfast wait. I pulled her towards me.
‘I’m all sticky,’ she said.
‘I know, I love you that way. Don’t go into the shower just yet.’ I lifted her tee shirt and laid my face against her stomach. ‘Maybe I should take up running myself.’
She combed through my hair, then circled her finger round the spot she likes best, the whirl. ‘If you’d needed to, mate, you’d have started before now.’
‘Do you need to?’
‘You bet. When I run, it’s to stretch the distance behind me.’
‘You’re madly, incurably competitive.’
‘That’s not it, no, not at all.’
She walked away, into the bathroom, and opened the shower door.
I followed. ‘What is it then, what is it about running?’
I watched her peel off her clothes as she considered her answer.
‘I really trust it,’ she said finally. ‘There was a time it saved me.’
‘From what?’ I reached for her hand, but she was already stepping into the streaming water.
‘Can’t hear you,’ she shouted.
At the studio that evening I briefed Padraig ahead of the start time: ‘Switch pace with each participant, keep your introductions crisp.’ I gave him the same message through his earpiece, and prompted the cameras on the women to seize on, respond to, probe, their unguarded and broken moments. I’ve always had an urge to look at pain and struggle and this was the TV work I wanted to do. To watch people under pressure, in a realm where they belonged to the public. The red light on the studio wall was my life-support. As a director I was privileged to cross that frontier, and return safely, entitled to orchestrate the whole.
The soundman was helping the women to relax: ‘Now I’ll be putting my hand inside your top, just to fix a little mike.’
Tracey laughed. ‘Where is he? Where’s little Mike? It’s not a little Mickey?’
Jacqueline was tense; as if dissociating herself in the moment, Susan flirtatious. ‘Any time.’ Padraig was pitch perfect, telling them, ‘I’m a nervous wreck myself. Sure, we’ll get over it together.’
In the Green Room, with the panel, I spotted how a ladder was starting in Maggie’s tights, just below her skirt, spreading slowly upwards. This breach in her expensive, lustrous second skin was oddly exciting. Yet to mention it aloud would somehow be a bad omen, so I waited till she noticed where my eyes were fixed. At once, she rose and cursing their short life, hurried to get a stopgap pair from wardrobe.
Half an hour before the start, I had gone down to the floor and called into hair and make-up. Here was the equivalent of an ICU ritual of disinfection, the wipes and aprons. Each islanded on a chair, wrapped in identical cream smocks, the four women faced their new faces. Breege’s milky skin and stout neck were blotched with red, but the make-up team were transforming her expertly, her heavy eyebrows thinned. Jacqueline agreed only to the merest retouch of base and sheen. The make-up lady spoke gently: ‘Just to camouflage your freckles. Aren’t you lucky, so natural.’ Tracey thought she wouldn’t need attention, having arrived already finished with mascara, shadow and blusher, but it was all redone. ‘It’s for the lights. Ordinary make-up doesn’t work.’ Susan, pink and gilded, was turning her head from side to side, examining her profile, pleased at how the angled mirrors threw a series of reflections far into the distance.
‘Hi, folks,’ I said, judging that ‘ladies’ would jar, and ‘girls’ was inaccurate.
As we chatted, I touched into what Maggie called their core identities, in the way Breege’s accent recalled broadcasts from the De Valera decades.Tracey followed ‘Howaya, Eoin’ with a deep laugh, Jacqueline murmured ‘Hello’ and Susan turned to me with a coquettish ‘Hi’ I put my hand on the shoulder of each in turn and whispered inanities such as, ‘Break a leg’, ‘Good luck’, ‘Just relax. Give it your best shot.’ They wouldn’t have believed it, but I needed a magic spell more than they did. When we were kids, Gerard and myself had a catch cry, a kind of ‘one for all and all for one’, which we shouted just before we went head first into the sea at White Rock. ‘Alala’ according to Gerard, was the war cry of the ancient Greeks. I took his word for it. He was interested in stuff like that. Mummy and Daddy gave him Tales of Troy and Greece the Christmas when he was ten. They were chuffed when he went on to come first in Ireland for Greek in his Leaving.
Now I mouthed ‘Alala’ quickly, and wondered whether Gerard had ever told Nicholas about it.
I gathered myself together and addressed the women. ‘Let’s go make some TV.’
The signature shot showed the four fixers striding forward into the TV building, all stern in long dark coats, holding a haughty stance, heads thrown back, as if already displeased with their clients.
Padraig had sheltered the women: now he would summon them to their first ordeal.
‘Just feel it, how the audience is giving you lots of love.’
From the poky and curtained passage, draped with huge clumps of cable, they stepped forward one by one into harsh lights, a hot plastic smell and dutiful applause, as the panel stood up to greet them. They were gone now, over the threshold. For once the label ‘brave’ was appropriate, as Breege, defended by her folded arms, completed a walk that must have seemed endless. Each sat down as Padraig welcomed them by name, Susan looking around at the audience.
Padraig asked what each one wanted from the experience of being on the show.
‘I want to emerge as a lay woman,’ said Breege.
As the childhood photos loomed on the big screen, Padraig moved close to each of them, to give a little introductory speil. He went a bit All Ireland Final: ‘Breege hails from a farming family’ – we could all see that – ‘where she had many jobs: boiling mash to feed the hens, milking the cows, minding her younger brothers. She joined a teaching order straight from school, taking the name of Sister Borgia.’
I smiled. I could hardly imagine a more inappropriate title for the good-natured Breege.
‘After eight years as a primary teacher, five in California, she moved back to Ireland, to Holy Redeemer, a convent of enclosed sisters. There she stayed for ten years.’
‘All these early photos are very significant, they reveal a lot about you as adults,’ Maggie said, her eyes laying Breege bare.
‘You’re putting your back into the hay making, there, Breege. Duty and service is big for you,’ she crinkled her nose. ‘I’d like to see you go for ego satisfaction.’
The camera caught it, the look I wanted. Breege, off-guard, seduced.
Jacqueline murmured that she wanted to emerge as a gay woman.
Padraig began to introduce her. A bit dully, with a fixed smile.
‘Speed it up Padraig,’ I told him.
‘Meet Jacqueline, from Carlow town, with one older sister. Her father is a sergeant in the Army; her mother works in a newsagent’s shop. Jacqueline did well at school, but opted to go into the Bank after the Leaving Cert, which disappointed her head teacher. She stayed living at home after her sister got married.’
In the photo, Jacqueline was gripping a hand of each parent. Maggie told her the challenge was to declare an identity that broke away from what they wanted for her, ‘Or what you assume they want for you. Let me tell you what I notice here. You’re still overly attached to your parents, still needy for their approval. Jacqueline, do you really think you’ll lose their affection if they hear you’re gay?’
As the camera picked up on her, Jacqueline gave little away.
Tracey was small, thin and pale, with the look of a newly hatched bird, her mousy hair drawn back in a pink band, blue eyes flecked with yellow, startling thick lashes. She spoke in her strong husky voice about wanting to emerge as a straight woman. She laughed across at Jacqueline, ‘As in goin’ straight.’
‘Keep your tone neutral, here, Padraig,’ I told him and, pro that he is, he delivered.
‘Tracey was mitching from school from the age of nine and she dropped out altogether at thirteen. She lived in Melody Street flats, the third child of six. She started shoplifting early, and moved on to picking pockets. Initially, she got the benefit of the Probation Act but has just left jail after doing six months.’ Almost as an afterthought, he added, ‘She has a little boy now.’ The camera cut across the audience to her sister, Sharon, with Keith – as pale as Tracey – on her lap.
‘I’m wondering,’ said Maggie, ‘if playing the part of a schoolgirl was strange to you, Tracey. You stuck it only while you were getting this photo taken in your uniform at the end of the school year. You’ve never really been part of the world of school, the world of nice people, now have you?’
Tracey grinned at her emphasis on the word ‘nice.’ But Maggie looked severe as she went on ‘That’s the world you have to deal with, Tracey, like it or not.’
‘I’m emerging as a businesswoman,’ announced Susan.
‘Susan grew up in Churchtown with one older brother, Kevin. Her father was a Customs Officer, her mother was a housewife and a great baker. Susan’s twins, a boy and a girl, are in fifth year. Unfortunately, Susan has run into problems in her marriage, and her husband and herself are separating.’
No mistaking the note of concern in Padraig’ s voice. Spot on.
Maggie left a pause, and when the expectancy peaked, she spoke softly, so that her words demanded attention. ‘In your First Communion portrait, Susan, I observe a need to be looked at. It’s as if you’re sitting in a shrine built by your mother. I bet she tweaked your veil and skirt just before this photo was taken. She used to anticipate everything for you, and maybe your husband did the same. Now you have to start taking the initiative, convincing people that you’re not just a pretty face.’
Susan sort of gulped, as if bewildered at Maggie’s tone, wiggled in her chair, then gave a hasty smile at the last two words.
‘Mam brought me into town to buy the dress and all the trimmings.’
For Maggie, it seemed no more probing was needed.
She summed up at the end, with the message that – though Padraig would be at their side throughout – from this point on, they would be taking their chances with the panel, and no holds barred. Actually a warning, she made it sound like an invitation.
‘Well done to you all, and welcome to the transitional state, the inter zone. It’s a lonely place. Because over the next few weeks each one of you will be dropping the baggage of your past, and facing into the future, which, with our help,’ she smiled, ‘you’ll be shaping for yourselves.’
By way of tiny trailers, John, Dymphna and Morgan now introduced some of the tasks awaiting the women. Breege was to start taking exercise, learn to apply make-up, rent a flat and prepare a CV, Jacqueline to come out to her parents, attend a gay disco, improve her posture, and seek promotion at the bank, Tracey to secure a place on a computer course with FÁS, and find out about healthy eating, and Susan to lose some weight, launch her new business by working out a business plan, negotiate a bank loan, and find at least one outlet for her cupcakes.
‘Lots of work ahead: you’re going to be very busy over the next weeks. Here’s wishing you all the very best of luck,’ said Padraig, as the applause rose behind the closing credits, which cut back to images of the women’s arrival at the bungalow.
I reached for Maggie’s knee as she settled into the front seat beside me.
‘Very well done today.’
‘Mind my tights, sweetheart. Though, mind you the collapse of the first pair must have been a good omen.’ She flipped her palms skyward as we drove off. ‘So – do we have authenticity or what? The ex-nun and the shoplifter, they’re the real thing.’
‘I agree, and I want you to get as much mileage out of those two as you can. But don’t overlook the others: we need to see Jacqueline emerging and Susan squelched from time to time.’ I glanced over. She was grinning. ‘Well the running order is important. I’m tackling Jacqueline’s life story after Breege’s – talk about a contrast – and that’ll call for more coaxing. Susan, we’ll get to. So, how was it for you? The programme, I mean.’
‘Just three words, baby: I love it, how you’re already filling out your role. The show needs your insight.’
‘Just you wait. I’ve only started.’
I found it easier to give my next message when I wasn’t looking at her. ‘Sure. That’s what you’re there for and that’ll hook the punters.’
‘But..?’ she said.‘What’s coming…?’ She had noticed how tightly I was gripping the wheel.
‘Remember the other Fixers will be getting equal time from now on. And they are just as proud of their interventions, how they are making the big difference.’
‘So what are you telling me, Eoin?’
I glanced over again. ‘You know better than most how patterns get set. I don’t want to have to deal with anyone’s bruised ego, if they feel upstaged.’
‘Isn’t that part of your job, baby? As if you’d hesitate to cut me off in mid-speil if the show needed it.’
‘I’d prefer not to,’ I said. ‘For all sorts of reasons.’
She didn’t answer, but her switch to teasing me about my penchant for English engineeering, a reference to my car, felt like a rebuke. As we headed towards the city centre, she stroked the walnut inlay of the car door.
‘OK, maybe Raleigh bicycles were the tops in your long distant youth, but streuth, a Rover car…’
‘I haven’t noticed that you’ve any problems travelling in it.’
‘No, bloody hell, of course not, but it’s really old fashioned, this reverence for the mother country. We’ve ditched all that in Oz.’
I relished her banter, but wouldn’t let her away with the jibes. Here, once more, she was on to me. It was true that I had never lost a huge respect – inhaled in the air of my childhood – for the neighbouring island.
‘The UK – no England – always baffled me, how are they all so fascinated by machines: fixing them, making them, discussing them.’
‘Pity they don’t have our way with their language.’
Exhausted, deflated, I sighed, indicated and pulled over. ‘Let’s eat at home tonight, I’m shattered. I’m going to see if they have sea bass in here. I could do it with salsa verde and straw potatoes, what do you think? Very Pacific, very San Francisco.’
‘Or very Sydney,’ she said, turning to look out of the window.
Standpoint by Damian O’Carroll
The greatest misnomer is the word ‘reality’. On the contrary: The Fixers is all contrived and scripted. It’s a fake, a hothouse flower that will never look, let alone smell, like the real thing.
Some commentators are already saluting this programme as proof of how Ireland is progressing in maturity and diversity. For them, progress is measured by the extent to which we disown our native character. Of the panellists, Miss Vernon, especially, is held to offer the way ahead. Hers is a style ostensibly born in Australia, but in reality lacking roots in any actual place, stemming as it does entirely from mass media. It offers as entertainment four women, persuaded that they are all somehow victims of traditional Ireland. Hence their submission to belittlement. A conflict is fabricated, supposedly between modernity and tradition, in reality between time-honoured decencies and ready-made borrowed fads.
Australia did not rank among the countries Damian admired. He argued that correctives for Irish cynicism could come from the Welsh, who had held on to their language, and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Cubans, because of their patriotism. He also occasionally praised the Finns with their model for a small independent economy. In the EU he saw a renewal of an old homogeneous and holy Europe, underpinned by a deep culture, a counterweight to America. But economics was not his forte: I thought of Damian as, at heart, a romantic, who longed for the world to provide more colour than it had to date, or perhaps ever could. It was a badge of honour, a tonic, for me, how The Fixers was looming so large as an emblem of everything he deplored.
She feels exhausted after the stress of the first programme, but once she has got shut of all the others, Susan won’t settle till she has made her bedroom look even more like a home. She has ordered square satin pillows on the bed, scented candles. Last of all, she unpacks the china house, her favourite one, from its layers of tissue. Later, she’ll choose more photos to go on the shelf. She lies back on the duvet, holding a pillow against her tummy. In the bunch of photos, there’s one of her wedding, and she feels like throwing up, not only because of Cathal (that smirk on his face sickens her), but also because the wrong parent is beside her. Her Da. If only it had been Mam who was alive that day. But only Dad was there and his manner when he gave her away just spelled out,sadly, that she’d never felt close to him When she was little, he was always up on the Border, working in Customs.
‘He gets lots of overtime,’ her mother would explain to everyone. When he came in, he’d lift Susan up and she felt the scratch of the harp on the lapel of his tunic.
‘Did you miss me?’ he’d ask.
But the one who missed him and who he missed was Kevin. On Sundays, the two of them would be off with their Tipperary flags to Croke Park or to Thurles for the Munster Final.
‘If Tipp isn’t playing, we cheer for Wexford,’ was her father’s little joke, because that was her mother’s home county. But Mam couldn’t care less about hurling or Gaelic. She entered Susan in Irish dancing competitions, making sure she had the right dresses, blue and green, flared skirts, Celtic tracery. And the white socks. But there were no trophies for dancing on the mantelpiece in their house, Montserrat, only for Kevin’s hurling. No way would Susan think of trying to get Ciara to learn Irish dancing, but she held on to those old outfits for the dressing up box. And not only Irish dancing stuff. The twins were about seven when she let them have her wedding headdress for a game. Ciara was wearing it when Conor noticed her hand was bleeding.
‘Mum, there’s a needle in this hat thing,’ he shouted.
Susan took away the cream tulle cap where a large needle jutted, still attached to the inside. She sat down on the floor of the spare bedroom. If she had stumbled when leaving the Church of the Annunciation, the needle could have entered her brain. Her marriage to Cathal a non-event. It would have finished off the twins too. They were already inside her, the bump camouflaged with gathers in the same cream tulle. When she told Cathal that evening, they both laughed. She doesn’t feel like laughing now; more like crying. She wonders if it wasn’t the dressmaker’s carelessness, but her beloved dead Mam that sent her this warning.
She was still in a wild phase – furious at Mam’s departure – trying to get Dad’s attention –,when she met Cathal Reynolds. Fiona, her flatmate in Castlewood Avenue, was seeing his best friend. One night, in the sixth month of their relationship, after lots of vodka and cranberry, Susan got pregnant. Cathal was a bit surprised, but in the end, ready enough to marry her, though his mother thought he was too young, at twenty-five. Susan didn’t have a mother to look out for her anymore. Her dress did a good job of concealing her large tummy. Fiona was her bridesmaid. Susan liked the idea of being married. Big time.
It all turned out differently, though. Once the kids started school, she’d be counting the hours till it was time to go back to collect them. Making-up carefully, popping her sunglasses on top of her head, for the run. At least she’d see a few other mums at the school gate. She often wondered how her Mam had filled the time. Always seemed busy, calling on neighbours, and down every week to the library to bring back one Agatha Christie and borrow another.
Susan couldn’t manage to stretch out the housework, and since Mam’s death, she had never been inside the library. After half eight in the morning, there wouldn’t be a soul around the estate. Different once she got her own car: better. She started driving off to shopping centres. The Spanish holidays were kind of the opposite. She was never on her own there, not with the bunch of Irishwomen at the resort. Cathal so proud of their Costa apartment, wanting her to know she could stay out there all summer with the kids. Some kids, at this stage. Once they started to walk and talk, Conor earlier than Ciara, Susan enjoyed them less. It felt like as she needed them more, they needed her less. Tiny babies, all unquestioning love, now they were really the nicest.
It was tough to wait for the reactions, but the public and the critics mostly lapped up The Fixers: bad language, irreverence, the lot. Once the viewing figures were strong, we knew the advertisers would stay on board. So the vibe from Brendan after the first programme was warily positive. I was thrilled by how Maggie engaged intimately with the participants, coaxing them into showing more than they intended. This they realised when, in the bungalow, they watched the tape of the first programme. In turn, these reactions were also being filmed.
‘So, how do you feel? What’s coming up for you?’ Padraig asked.
As Padraig described it to Maggie and myself, Susan and Jacqueline, at least, would have seen themselves on screen before, but even so, when when it came to it, they reacted in surprisingly similar ways: not startled, not trying to argue with the way they came across, rather dazzled by the questioner off camera. We had sold the show on the basis that the unexpected could happen. That meant nudging the participants into behaving in interesting ways.
‘I’m happy out,’ Breege said. She used that phrase a lot, without apparently noticing how everyone looked uncomfortable. ‘Maggie really understands.
‘She gets loads out of our kid pho’os,’ said Tracey.
‘It’s quite scary,’ said Jacqueline, ‘She’s so sharp. And that look of hers. You kind of agree with her, even if she’s not always right.’
It was Susan who apparently lacked self-awareness. She boasted repeatedly of her weeks on the Costa, of shopping trips and – reminding everyone that she was the only participant with an ‘actual family’ – listed Conor’s selection for the junior rugby team and Ciara’s prizes for art in the Texaco competition. Padraig introduced the second programme.
‘In the past week, the participants have really got stuck into their tasks. Let’s look at how Jacqueline reviewed her career options with John.’
On the screen, John, pen poised, with his interviewer face on: ‘Well, Jacqueline, you’re already the department administrator: how do you see the next two years for yourself at the bank?’
‘I like where I am.’
‘Tell me why.’
‘I’m lucky to be in the bank.’
‘I got a mortgage on brilliant terms.’
‘You’ve a good head on you, Jacqueline, especially for figures. From your present post, in corporate taxation, you could aim higher.’
Now, as he picked up in the studio session, I cued him to,‘Apply more pressure.’
He went on a bit about asking her boss for a meeting, securing support for further training, thinking about insurance and saving plans for her own financial future None of this stirred Jacqueline. John seemed desperate, after prompting her about holidays, clubs and cinema, till Padraig joined in, got her talking about her hometown.
‘My apartment is very convenient for work, and there are lots of good takeaways around.’
I told Padraig to move on. To him, surely good news. As the first break loomed, he announced, ‘Don’t go away. Up next: how Breege worked with Maggie on some personal development issues. “Breaking Through the Blocks”, Maggie calls it.’
We switched to a pre-recorded item on the big screen, showing the women gathered together in the living room of the bungalow. ‘Now, your story, what made you enter?’ Maggie asked, using the phraseology of nunland.
We got full value. The camera went close, catching how Breege loosed a sudden bright smile.
‘I loved the Mass, the words, and the flowers on the altar.’
‘What other job would you have done?’
Breege blushed. She had probably never thought being a nun was a job.
‘I got good marks in my Leaving Cert, especially in English, but my parents hadn’t the money to send me to Carysfort.’
‘That’d be for national school teacher training?’
‘There were nine of us at home.’
‘Now, fast-forwarding to this year, how did you feel about giving up your vows?’
‘I was surprised Mother Superior took it so coolly. Before I told her, I was in agony. I was dreading saying those words…’
‘Dreading what about it?’
‘That I was doing something terrible, walking out on God, reneging on a solemn promise, deserting my sisters. Down the years, there were a few women who left.’
‘What was the reaction?’
Breege looked down. Her colour deepened.
‘Not much, really. From one day to the next their names were never spoken.’
‘When I told her, Mother Superior didn’t seem put out. She was almost indifferent.’
‘And you felt offended?’
‘She talked about the papers from Rome that released me, how they had to go into the archives, but I got no preparation for living in the world, so different. I was told it would be best if I left immediately. And then Mother looked away, picked up her breviary.’
The studio audience were suddenly one person, sitting forward, watching the screen, willing Breege to shine. Me too. I ordered a quick cut to Maggie and, accordingly, she shifted gear, her voice now silky.
‘I’m wondering if they’d got enough out of you and now you were more of a liability.’
‘That could be it,’ Breege lowered her head, as Maggie switched to cool puzzlement and leaned back, satisfied, into the bungalow’s leather ‘Fixer’ chair.
‘So Breege,’ said Maggie, ‘we’ve all heard your story. And you’re still not cynical about the church?’ Maggie looked up over her glasses, a tinge of scorn coming into her voice.
‘Of course it’s male dominated, there are two standards.’
‘But you’re not really angry?’
Breege continued to smile.
On other recordings from the bungalow, we had seen Breege’s look when she mentioned the Pope, how she glowed when the TV evening news, which they all watched together , showed him greeting children. As usual, a large basket was piled with the latest batch of Susan’s cupcakes, and she circulated, ensuring that no-one’s plate was empty for long. Only when each of the women had finished at least one, did she remove the basket, and insist on getting feedback.
‘It’s really important, I need to know about the US recipes, they’re new to Ireland. Are tonight’s better than the last lot? What do you think?’
Breege went into details about how crumbly or moist they were. The others gave her little joy.
‘Jaysus, Susan, I’ll ge’ fa’.’
‘No, Tracey of course you won’t.’
‘Lucky you,’ said Jacqueline gloomily.
We switched back to the studio.
‘So Breege’, said Maggie, rejoining the conversation in real time. ‘So we’ve all heard your story., Maggie looked up over her glasses, a tinge of scorn coming into her voice.
‘I want to hear more about the two standards. You were teaching in Sacramento at the end of the sixties. What happened after Vatican Two?’
‘The chaplain of our parochial school used to take me out in his Cadillac, along Route 40. We were up in the hills near Lake Tahoe one day, and he propositioned me.’
Maggie’s timing was superb: she paused, saying nothing, letting the moment hang. Now the audience were panting to hear more.
‘He wanted you to leave and marry him, right?’
Breege smiled, though without bitterness.
‘Oh, no, he had a cushy number, he could use the school management fund for his car and his trips away. He wouldn’t have given up any of that. He wanted to have sex, that’s all.’
But when she went to the Confessor of her order, she was scolded: ‘You must have given him some encouragement.’
Maggie left a silence till Breege answered herself.
‘I would never have done that to a priest.’
The applause was loud and long. Following up, Maggie ran more briskly through a photo collage of moments in Breege’s life. The day she was professed: a group shot of the whole congregation, every face shining, and around them, the grounds, where widely-spaced, clumsy statues loomed. Then a close-up on Breege.
‘Right here, we have an object that represents your life as a nun,’ said Maggie. The camera pulled back as Maggie held out to Breege a dinted leather belt, then moved tight in again, to capture the rough poignance of it. ‘You put it on the day of your profession at Holy Redeemer.’
A photo came up on the screen showing Breege wearing it. Maggie’s pause drew out the moment for just long enough. Then, as if it was a task from Breege’s days helping on the farm, Maggie handed her a large a pair of shears. ‘Now cut it up.’
Breege’s hands shook as she lifted the shears, but it was clear that she still handled tools with ease. It took effort to saw it roughly into two pieces, and her forehead became a deeper pink. In the meantime, the camera panned across the audience, and cut to the other participants. No one seemed to breathe. Tracey kept her gaze fixed on Breege.
‘What that was like? Did you feel rageful?’
‘I felt strong.’
‘You’ll need to show fury: I’m not seeing it.’
The second break followed a shot of Breege looking at the two strips of brown leather seemingly unsure how to show any fury at all.
When the show restarted, Maggie reminded the audience that our past mustn’t and needn’t define us.
From Padraig, encouraging little comments to Breege: ‘Well done, good girl, go for it.’ Then he shifted. ‘Dymphna and Tracey went shopping.’
At the entrance to the shopping centre, Dymphna spoke to camera.
‘Tracey and I have looked over her wardrobe, and I’ve loads of suggestions.’
Then, turning to Tracey, ‘Today we’re going to aim for stronger colours – to give you a more dependable, mature look – keeping lots of separates to mix and match.’ This, one of Dymphna’s favourite phrases, finally had some meaning.
Their outing was one of the most serene scenes of the show, and succeeded in showing Tracey in a positive light: shoplifter transformed into shopper. Back to the bungalow, the feel of female confidences, exchanges over a bed piled high with shopping spoils, was strong. The women spread out items from Tracey’s current wardrobe, side by side with her new purchases. Breege unable to get near the bed, as Susan moved back and forth, interested only in the new outfits. ‘Now, that’d be too loud for me, but you can get away with it,’ she tells Tracey. Dymphna was hedging about the clothes that ‘turn and turn about’, had served Tracey so far. But Tracey unhesitatingly bundled up the cropped tank tops, the boob tubes and the stonewashed jeans. ‘They’re ou’.’
They switched back to the live studio where Tracey, having mysteriously left the stage for some minutes, suddenly reappeared wearing an oversized tee shirt, leather bike shorts over patterned tights, and – especially thrilling – faux leopard skin boots. The audience gave her a big hand.
More endeavour followed the third break, as Padraig linked to Morgan’s segment, which showed Susan toiling in a pink and black Fixers tracksuit. The effort to speed-walk beside him through Bushy Park left her panting. Next, in the gym, Morgan was walking on the spot, his shapely brown legs pumping up and down, mimicking the moves she was to make on the treadmill. Her pink and black headband spangled with sweat, Susan seemed constantly on the point of losing her footing.
I cued in Padraig, back in the studio.
‘Now Susan,’ he responded, ‘you’re getting fixed up with Morgan’s exercise routine. You’re game, no doubt about that.’
He looked expectantly at the audience who obligingly broke into applause.
As the clapping quieted, he gave Susan a fatherly look, ‘But you’re also facing long hours in the kitchen and lots of deadlines. I know all the ladies are enjoying your baked goodies every night.’
The audience clapped again, but I couldn’t resist picking up a shot of Morgan with a face like thunder. The Fixers could – would have to – survive a bunch of mixed messages.
‘You’ll need lots of stamina – and patience – while you’re developing your business start-up.’
A clip from the bungalow. Susan’s anger at how someone was helping themselves to her superfoods: the rows of high-protein drinks and bioactive smoothies that Morgan had packed on to ‘her’ shelf in the fridge. ‘They were ordered specially for me. I need them, you know.’
Morgan reported on Susan’s weight loss. Faced with his talk of kilos, food portions, nutritional supplements and the GI index, she was much more meek than Jacqueline. Morgan gave her cover by talking about how hard it must be to persist with a diet when she was ‘surrounded by goodies like your cupcake ingredients.’
But Maggie was scathing. ‘You’re still reacting to your recent hurt. To launch a business you’ll need to take a firm grip of your life and get into better shape. As you’re well aware, when you’re chasing sales, people will judge you by your appearance. Lots of work needed.’
Standpoint by Damian O’Carroll
What can be more dispiriting than the sight of adults wearing tracksuits and trainers off the athletic track? The heart sinks to see a woman panting across a park in shapeless and garish garments. As always, aesthetics chimes with ethics. This unlovely spectacle sums up the muddled thinking behind The Fixers phenomenon, with- inevitably-pink sportswear and has to do with a strange inversion, whereby adults and children have changed places. One hears that grown men and women take pride in their real Adidas, with three stripes. It seems the ones with four stripes are fakes.
Who would have thought that Damian was au fait with the finer points of fashion in trainers? I giggled at the notion that among his secrets was a deep interest in these matters.
Was it for this that we broke out of the British Empire? Whilst children show an overweening sense of entitlement to the privileges (though not to the responsibilities) of adulthood and young girls are persuaded to dress like Thai street walkers, their parents – long since browbeaten into yielding to their youngsters’ every whim – take to donning silly hats at football matches and tracksuits at all seasons and occasions. In portraits of the old royal families of Spain by Velasquez, children were dressed like adults. Now adults, inexplicably, insist on dressing like children.
And, on The Fixers, adults acquiesce in being treated like children. The participants sheepishly swallow the comments of coach Delahunty. He reduces the adventure of living to staying positive, keeping a slim figure and ‘moving on’, all while his mortified protégé wears a badly-cut tracksuit and a headband that harks back to the 1980s. By The Fixers yardstick, spurious achievements are hailed as remarkable breakthroughs. Not seeking to be unkind, but bound to be accurate, one can only equate one woman’s blatant longing for admiration with ‘Look at me Mammy! I have my sock on’!
Unlike other columnists, who took regular breaks, Damian never failed to produce copy every single week. Presumably, he filed it from wherever he spent his holidays. My guess was that that would be somewhere in Europe. If a trip abroad gave a particular colour to his commentary on Ireland, the colour was always subtle.
‘I’m surprised by his mention of Thailand,’ I told Maggie. ‘I’d have thought Salamanca would be more in his line.’
‘You think a lot about that guy,’ said Maggie.
‘Yes, he’s an iceberg, hides more than he shows, I find him fascinating.’
‘Well, nobody has to be an open book to everyone.’
Radio Call-In Comments
Did you see the headbands they’re using on The Fixers? Hideous.
Those tracksuits remind me of the freebies that we used to get with vouchers from cereal packets.
I remember buying heaps of cereal to get in before the offer closed. Then, my kids refused to wear the tracksuits.
My kids wouldn’t eat the cereal either.
I like The Fixers colours. Pink and black really stand out, very feminine. The swimsuits should match.
By the third programme, it was obvious which of the women Dymphna found most rewarding. Susan loved lengthy trying-on sessions, constructing and deconstructing numerous ensembles. Leggings and a wrap-around skirt – knee-length, floaty. Blouses with fashionably long collars. Brightly coloured tops to echo the approaching spring. Her passion was shoes, and they mixed and matched – still Dymphna’s ongoing refrain. Susan delightedly flaunted cowboy boots, platform shoes, wedgies, sandals and kitten heels, changing them throughout the day.
The relief, to have a smooth session like that in the bag. Now we needed more conflict. No problem finding that.
At the next Fixers debrief, Dymphna suddenly turned bolshie. The headbands had to be dropped. ‘My professional reputation is involved here.’
‘How come you professionally approved them at the start?’ Morgan was giving no comfort.
‘My budget was so tight. I had to cut my cloth. But now they’re getting lots of flack from the public and the media are taking it up. Even the thrift shops wouldn’t stock them. There are limits.’
‘What do you think, John?’ I asked.
‘I take Dymphna’s point. The show is going down a bomb, so let’s push the boat out, on this one.
‘Can you go to the money man, Eoin? See if we can fund baseball caps or something?’ asked Morgan
‘Let me know what you think, Dymphna, and I’ll follow up.’ I reckoned she needed some boosting.
Consummate as ever, Maggie showed the cop-on to say nothing.
‘John has been steering Tracey. It’s fair to say she never gave a minute’s thought to her future, up to now,’ announced Padraig.
‘Hopefully, you’ll get a place on that FÁS course in IT. Hurry up and get your hands on an application form. It will take you some time – and some window dressing – to put in a half-decent application. Your school record is pretty pathetic. Actually rubbish,’ said John.
Tracey didn’t even flinch. ‘How much will I ge’?’
‘A few euro more than the basic dole. But Tracey, what matters is not the money’ – his look cut off her next comment – ‘but a golden opportunity to get skills. I want you to get a grip on your spending and set up a little budget for yourself.’
He handed her a biro and a notebook where she was to write down what she spent each week.
‘Everything, mind. Get receipts. Even for, say, a packet of crisps. Or cigs.’
The camera flicked to Morgan, his blatant disapproval that John wasn’t telling Tracey to give them up. When they picked the conversation up in the studio session, John asked her how she felt about the list.
‘I’m always forgettin’ abou’ the receipts.’
‘Well, OK, what’s the story from the records you do have?’
‘There’s a lot goin’ ou’ on chocola’ and me fags are dear.’
‘You have to start budgeting, or you’ll always run out of money before the end of the week. I want you to make a list of all the bills you have to pay, and the essentials.’
I told him to stretch it out.
‘They are things you really have to buy,’ he explained.
‘There’s me rent, ESB, food, bus fare. It doesn’t last, I do have to borrow.’
‘If you keep on this way, you’ll never get out of debt.’ John held out five envelopes. ‘Write each one of the bills from your list on an envelope and when you get your dole, split up the money into them. Don’t use it for anything else. Once you’re earning, you’ll have to start repaying those debts.’
Tracey looked doubtful, but John persisted.
‘We’ll be checking in with you over the next weeks.’
‘Come on John, give her some incentive,’ I prompted.
He made a lucky guess. ‘You want Keith to look trendy, don’t you?’
Tracey’s big laugh. ‘I love the new toddler gear alrigh’. Dymphna was showin’ me.’
‘Well… there you are.’
Following a discreet word with the FÁS centre, I expected Tracey to get a place. We advised her to keep her complaints about FÁS rules, allowance and tea-breaks off camera.
‘Last week, her comments from the bungalow were priceless, but she’s playing it safe with John,’ I said. ‘Whew!’
With apparently little data to go on, Maggie’s accurate reading of the participants, her sure-footed responses, made a huge impression, though they were not as spontaneous as they sounded. Padraig’s regular updates to our team gave Maggie details that she fed back later, as if born of intuition. Like when she threw in a comment to Susan, accompanied by a hard stare: ‘You’re market-testing your cupcakes on the other women. Served at every meal, are they?’
‘I ring the changes on the toppings.’ Susan beamed around at her fellow participants. ‘The girls love having a couple in the evenings, with a cup of tea.’
‘I imagine Morgan will have something to say about that,’ said Maggie.
He did. ‘You were all given individual diet sheets. But it’s up to each and every one of you to stick to them. How are you going to feel if you miss your fitness targets?’ He looked accusingly at Susan.
Maggie waved her hand. ‘Susan, you’re not a housewife anymore. You’re not sitting around the dinner table with your family. Verbal feedback doesn’t cut it. You’re also undermining these women’s goals in the interests of yours. So, why not serve just small slices of the cakes in the evenings – or none at all – and instead bring in samples to our studio audience here? We can leave a scoresheet on each chair, so you’ll get much more feedback.’
Maggie looked at the audience and they clapped at length.
I marvelled how Maggie could keep up that pitch of intensity. Surely she was exhausted?
‘If I was trying to get Jacqueline to open up, I would be,’ I cued her.
‘In the past week, Jacqueline met up with Maggie,’ intoned Padraig.
The recorded segment showed them on a seat in the garden of the bungalow, on a rarely bright and still day.
Jacqueline was blocked by her usual reserve. I wondered if her energy had been spent just by putting in an application to the show and, after the excitement of being chosen, she couldn’t muster any more to participate vivaciously. Her story was low key, mainly about sidestepping queries throughout her adolescence.
‘You’ve been afraid to express yourself, your tastes, in case somehow, you might betray your hidden desires,’ Maggie said. ‘That’s right isn’t it? Trouble is, that manner of yours comes across as low trust. Just relax. You can let yourself admire K.D Lang without being afraid of revealing your sexuality.’
Jacqueline’s reaction was, as usual, dampened and slow, not admitting how tough her teens and early twenties must have been.
Back to the studio. ‘Track down to show how Jacqueline’s foot keeps beating the air,’ I cued the cameraman. Maggie had certainly seen it, that anger, and when the camera moved to her, she was insistent.
‘We’ve talked about your later teens. Give me a bad moment from those years.’
Jacqueline needed little prompting. It seemed she had the example ready.
‘I loathed the day of my sister’s wedding. It was even more dire that I expected.’
‘I was the bridesmaid, so the best man and myself were supposed to pair off. The only person in the room I wanted to dance with was the groom’s sister.’
The audience laughed drily. I ordered the camera to pull back to show them and their focus. Their response – evidence that they were listening – seemed to encourage Jacqueline to go on.
‘The shitty talk from awful aunts, ones I seldom saw, they barely knew me, so embarrassing, they went on about how I would be next, telling me over and over that my dress was lovely. They should have said that to my mother. It was her choice, not mine.’
‘But you wore it, Jacqueline,’ Maggie shot in, with a head shake.
‘As soon as the dancing began, I escaped. My mother kept knocking on the bedroom door, with a hue and cry. “Are you all right? Everyone is looking for you. Your sister wants you back downstairs.”’
Maggie held her gaze, allowing nothing to escape. ‘The dress.’
Jacqueline looked down. ‘Strapless.’
Maggie continued in pursuit. ‘What colour?’
‘What did you want to wear instead?’
‘A straight denim dress and sneakers.’
‘And the rest of the night?’
‘I stayed most of the time in the ladies’.’
Maggie gave the audience an archly knowing look, then turned and nodded at Padraig. ‘Well… here it is… the hated dress.’
With a flourish, Maggie took it from Padraig, held it up, and invited Jacqueline to rip it apart. I knew that nothing was left to chance: the seams had already been unpicked. Trust Damian to recall, in a later column, how in the 1800s, the same precautions had been taken to ensure that the luckless Captain Dreyfus’ epaulettes and insignia came off with the first tug.
Jacqueline’s face was a small white mask as she reduced the dress to strips.
Maggie interrupted the process several times. ‘Stop, take your time. Listen to how it’s tearing. You need to give it your full attention, feel how you’re destroying it. Stay mindful. That dress has hurtful memories for you. It represents how you were forced to ape what you were not, how you were cramped by society’s expectations. And, even though you knew the type of outfit you would be more comfortable in, you didn’t give a clear signal, didn’t follow your gut feeling, didn’t speak up for yourself. Because you were – you are – still hiding yourself, avoiding, covering up. Shutting yourself in your room. Your parents, your sister, your supposed date, none of them knew who you really were. And you didn’t tell them. You only react, you don’t take the initiative.’
Jacqueline jerked her head in reluctant compliance. ‘I kind of see what you’re saying. The night Susan let the cupcakes burn, and then the next night forgot to turn on the oven, it was kind of a relief. I mean, I love my food, but there’s such a thing as too much cake. I prefer a bit of variety myself. You’re right, I should speak up.’
I prompted Padraig. ‘Enough. Move it forward quickly.’
‘Let’s take a look at how Breege got on with Morgan this week.’
Morgan introduced his segment, smirking, as he moved towards Breege, lifting her hands and telling her to push back. He smirked some more. ‘Your muscle tone is not strong. You have to work the triceps and biceps. I’ll be giving you a worksheet of exercises to progress through for the next three weeks.’
Breege’s head bobbed.
‘And I recommend swimming.’
She spoke quietly, ‘I can’t swim.’
Forward to shots of Breege, her swim hat in The Fixers’ colours, (black for Jacqueline, pink for Susan, I thought), standing up to her chest in a swimming pool while Morgan, a whistle hanging from a snow-white lanyard around his neck, urged her to push the water back with her cupped hands. Later, she moved, her legs breaking the surface, as she worked hard to make small progress. Morgan was pulling her through the water with a long pole. The last sequence showed him letting go of the pole, and though Breege (in the deep end), seemed close to panic, she stayed flailing and splashing valiantly till Morgan relented, again offered the pole, and guided her to the steps.
The sequence drew a huge round of applause from the audience back in the studio, and Breege, even more vulnerable now than in the pool, glowed with pleasure, in her usual way. So did I. We were all touched by the swell of love that mounted towards her.
Maggie interrupted, ‘Well, Morgan, there’s the perfect sport for her. I expect you’ll be encouraging her to do more of that.’
That’s my girl. Keeping the heat on, stretching Breege, just in case she thought she was getting it easy.
I brought Morgan in, to take back the studio session. He took Breege aside and mimicked a number of arm movements, stretches, raises and swings, and Breege had to follow him. There was an uncomfortable improvised feel to these moments. Something added on, as if he was working against the flow.
Susan’s voice piped in, and the camera swung back to the seated women. Someone had forgotten to turn off her mike, and now that the focus was on exercise, she didn’t want to be left out.
‘Morgan has stepped up my programme,’ she was saying, smiling across at him. ‘’Cos I’m doing so well. As of today, I’ve lost three pounds.’
As Morgan looked chuffed, Maggie squelched them both.
‘Pushing cupcakes on others while staying off them yourself? That’s a bit sly isn’t it? Well, it’s all very well folks but, Morgan, you do know about all the other temptations in the bungalow freezer don’t you? And you, Susan, will need to do more than running. Fitness won’t get you far in business, will it?’
Morgan said little at the debrief that followed, and asked to leave early.
Standpoint by Damian O’Carroll
Driven by Miss Vernon, The Fixers adds to an already alarming level of muddle, over-simplification and coarsening. A reality show is an oxymoronic phrase, and this is also a moronic spectacle, totally contrived, admitting nothing save only a narrow range of stock reactions. Dramas on TV, professionally scripted and acted, can certainly entertain. The Fixers, however, relies on self-selected participants, who are assumed to be interesting, because they are experiencing difficulties: hardly sufficient reason for us to listen to them.
Their ‘before’ must be exaggerated so their ‘after’ can provide an instant and unearned contrast. Here is the ugly spectacle of a show trial. They are duty bound to swallow – and parrot – the message that problems raised in the first half of the programme have been solved in the second. Not to agree would be to fall short in positive thinking, a failing not lightly forgiven. They are under a mid-Atlantic compulsion to be upbeat, never failing to ‘have a great day’, when merely to get by is an achievement.
These four individuals are in many ways special cases, not typical of the mainstream of Irishwomen. In any event, it is a doubtful that their cautionary or redemptive tales in any sense excuse our prurience. The programme attempts to draw a rag of responsible concern over an impertinent intrusion into three troubled lives: the exception amongst them being the former Sister Borgia. Something interesting is happening here, as her life-story is co-opted to a threadbare narrative, to sustain the tired old routine of Catholic Church bashing.
Damian complained that we were bundling the women together, yet at the same time, he wrote warmly about Breege’s difference. This was clever, since in the main, nuns were being let off more lightly by the Irish public than priests. His stance on Catholicism was predictable, but he did not overlabour it. He was surely aware that his readership did not map exactly on to the groups he usually championed. He was read most by those who were his targets, the Dublin establishment, even if, like me, they enjoyed him as a kind of welcome irritant.
She stands out for dignity of bearing, a freedom from false sentiment; qualities tempered in the steel of a sincere vocation. Despite the facile sneers of the programme makers, these traits deserve honour. Far from being an obstacle to her leading a fulfilled life, her valiant commonsense is precisely what makes her a worthy model. Nor does she, as a laywoman, appear to have any difficulty with the teaching of the Church or the authority of the Pope. But this is never mentioned.
Though I would have phrased it differently, I had to admit that Damian was spot on here. At this stage, Breege was getting the highest audience ratings. She was, arguably, taking the biggest risk in terms of the distance she was prepared to travel. In a strange way, she was also the most attuned to the medium: her moves gave most scope to the experts.
Padraig doesn’t know the half of what’s going on in the bungalow. Like the other night, when Susan was working late, for the umpteenth time, going over the presentation John signed off. She can’t leave anything to chance for the meeting he’s arranged for her. A big opportunity, he keeps saying, to get her marketing plan up and running. Her standard-issue pink bathrobe is cosy enough, but she often feels chilly, which Morgan has told her is probably low blood sugar, a result of her taking the dieting a bit too seriously. Good to take a little wander, get the type of snack he goes on about, twelve almonds and an apple. Strange that, light under the door. Jacqueleine, in a denim jacket over her fawn pyjamas, standing at the fridge. She nearly dropped the roll stuffed with coleslaw. The kitchen smells of curry and there’s a messed up saucepan on the cooker. The look on Jacqueline’s face, so guilty. Susan’s heart went out to her. She made her sit at the table, at least use a plate.
‘Why don’t you ask Morgan about some of those slimming products? He’s done loads for my fitness, but then, of course, I’ve a very definite goal in mind. Perhaps you need to strengthen your goal too.’
Jacqueline said she was scared he’d find out she’d started binging. ‘I couldn’t face one of those grillings on the show. Could you imagine? On national TV? Next week, I swear, I’ll be back on the diet, too stressed out just now.’
Susan rubbed her shoulder, ‘Our secret. But go on, hurry back to bed. I’ll clean up and turn off the light. We don’t want Tracey finding us here and wanting a party.’
‘You have to like her all the same. She’s a ticket,’ said Jacqueline, but Susan just gave her shoulder another little pat as she opened the door.
Once Jacqueline had gone, full of thank-yous, Susan did the washing up, wiped the surfaces, finally sat down with her apple and almonds. The kitchen was still warm after Jacqueline’s cooking. She pulled a heap of papers from across the table. She knew what they were. Tracey was always careless about leaving stuff lying around. A FÁS application form, brochures. One, about a course in online marketing for new businesses. Made for Susan. She’s just the kind of applicant they want, it’d be wasted on Tracey. She wouldn’t be able for it. Doesn’t even own a computer. Susan picked up the lot. In her room, put them away carefully. Before the others got up, she’d pop to the newsagent and copy them.,She immediately starts on the 100 word summary about how she’d use the course if she got a place. Lots of what she put on her Fixers application comes in handy, all about goals and action lists. And the new words she has learned from John, about budgets and sales projections. She looks over the draft. She likes her rounded handwriting, always praised by her teachers, with little open circles for the dots on her i’s.
When she goes into breakfast, Padraig is leaning against the counter. He asks has she seen Tracey’s FÁS forms. Tracey at the table has her cigarettes out, looks around the room as if expecting to suddenly see them. ‘I was goin’ to ask the girls to help me. Me writin’ isn’t the best. I was sure I left ’em here to remind me.’
Padraig shook his head. ‘You were told at the beginning to keep your paperwork in your room. Now you’ll have to ring up for another set. Gives a bad impression. Perhaps you should just go in to town and call into the office. And John will have to be told about the delay.’
Susan slipped out to the newsagent and back again, on the excuse of needing skimmed milk for a cup of tea. After, she brings a bundle of recipes from her room, Tracey’s forms hidden in the middle. In the sitting room, she slips the forms under the TV guide on a small table. After the Fixers sessions that evening, Jacqueline finds them. Breege is sure she looked there already.
Tracey doesn’t seem to have learned her lesson. She still leaves the forms lying around, takes forever to fill them in, till Breege sits her down one afternoon and they get them finished. Ever since the forms went missing, Breege is giving Tracey lots of time, staying on her case. And when Jacqueline saw Tracey working on her budgeting – what a joke – smoothing out crumpled receipts, while watching Judge Judy on TV – she gave her a hand. Of course, those two aren’t up against the kind of deadlines Susan is facing.
They pick at salads, steamed chicken and steamed fish every evening. Then sit in front of the telly together, but they can’t agree what to watch. The scent of Susan’s cupcakes wafts from the kitchen, but apart from the smallest dice-sized pieces, they are now forbidden to eat them. Morgan arrived the morning after Jacqueline’s binge. What he calls high-fat, high-carb, high-sugar, pre-packaged, ‘crap’ foods were removed from the freezer. It was restocked with green vegetables and skinless chicken pieces. No more pizza or ice-cream. Tracey had a tantrum, slamming the door. But Jacqueline said nothing. So scared. Susan was ordered to keep her cupcake sprinkles locked away in her room so no one could dab a sneaky finger in when the others weren’t looking. Her latest batches of cupcakes are packed up each morning by Padraig, and moved elsewhere for storage until the next show.
Monday of week four. After I opened my eyes, I knew The Fixers was a success. I had been trusting my gut feeling until now, but today there was more to go on: the viewing figures, which were breaking all records. I stretched over to catch the morning radio show that brought more good news. Call-ins from the public confirmed how we were engaging the nation. Older people championed Breege, the gay community admired Jacqueline. Tracey stirred up diverging views. Susan was mostly admired for her belief in her business idea, taking her homebaking skills to the market, and her guts in taking a risk with the set-up, though some found her smug.
‘I bet the public hasn’t cottoned on, that the show is now at the half-way mark. They’ll be looking forward to lots more.’
Maggie ordered silence till she had finished her slow deliberate stretching routine, extending her arms and legs on the mat. Finally she stood up and shook herself. ‘Ahhh, Doris,’ she said. ‘She would have done well on the show. My star client, I’m most proud of how she set up retail outlets for indigenous pottery. She also taught yoga. There’s a true reinventor, born on a reservation, parents illiterate.’
‘You gave her a hell of a lot then.’
‘Yes, but she gave me these. Incredible.’
As I slipped out of bed, I reflected on how far we had come with The Fixers.
‘Look at the light,’ I said, going to the window. ‘A fine morning for a change. It’s about acclaim, isn’t it, for us all on The Fixers. And you’re the woman of the hour. You’re touching a chord. Soon they’ll be spotting you in the street.’
Much later I would regret ever uttering those words even though she told me, ‘But you’re the one that brings it all together, Eoin, so it’s grounded with the public. I’m thinking barbers’ shops, pubs, tea breaks, buses, pillow talk – you heard, it’s even on the radio first thing on a Monday morning.’
The show was young and I felt young. Team meetings were full of purpose and camaraderie. Though, apart from Maggie I didn’t really like the others, I sort of loved Dymphna, Morgan and John, in the way I used to love my pals at college. In The Fixers endeavour I found again the intensity of old arguments about life and society and making a difference.
‘We’ve set a standard with the first three programmes,’ I told the team that afternoon.
‘And now we’ll have to keep it up,’ Maggie finished my sentence. I hugged to myself the thought that Maggie had got it right and this little show could have resonance with the state of Ireland.
We caught a late dinner in Volare. While Maggie was in the ladies’, some colleagues who had just stepped in from the rainy night detoured on the way to their table to tell me how well The Fixers was shaping up. It was being mentioned as potentially saleable to TV channels abroad, with the further twist of a large prize in cash to be given during the last programme to the most popular participant, the one who scored highest with the audience. A kind of ‘man of the match’ type of award.
‘Listen,’ I told Maggie afterwards. ‘Apparently, Brendan is pissed off that he didn’t think of building that into our version.’
‘But how would it work?’
‘They’d probably get a large sponsor to put up the funding. The plan would be to keep the winner’s name a secret till the end.’
‘Even from the panel?’
‘Even from them.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘In psychology, we haven’t been allowed to practise deception on subjects for quite a while.’
‘In show business, darling, especially in European TV, the rules are more lax. Look, I know you had some reservations about Susan, but you’re handling her superbly. When she gets to the moment to destroy her object – and you know that’s next – I count on you to bring out her strengths. Make sure the audience is touched. I reckon if the prize was on offer, Susan would be the winner.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Can we go now?’
‘What? Now, now?’
‘We’ve finished our dinner.’
I opened my mouth to protest but she gave me a blank stare. That suited me. I wanted to be back in bed with her.
We had a glass of wine later, still in bed. The mention of possible future buyers for The Fixers had reminded me to start jotting down a CV. I explained my plan to Maggie: ‘Even before the show ends, I need to get my name around the system.’
‘Why do I not expect you to ask John for advice on this plan of yours?’ She nudged my foot with hers.
She laughed. ‘Well, you can tell me about it.’
But we dropped the forward planning, stayed gossiping.
Maggie and I were still in thrall to each other’s stories about our earlier lives, and she talked about seeing patterns in my student jobs. That I had found, at first, market research and junior reporting gigs, and then a hospital receptionist job was to Maggie further evidence of my privileged history.
‘Until I got into Matthew’s lab, I worked only to earn money. My jobs didn’t bring in any contacts or experience for my career. Try having to clean bathrooms with the risk of being groped by Japanese tourists, if they caught you bending over the tub.’
‘No, I don’t think I will try. Though surely all that is rated as experience?’
I ducked playfully under the duvet as she swung her glass of Sauvignon in my direction.
‘Careful. Don’t drench the pillows!’
I was well aware of my talent for getting people to talk, gathering their views. Sometimes it was face-to-face market research, when I took the bus out to Santry or down to Maynooth, to ask housewives about oven-ready chips or low fat spreads. I learned how to present myself as professional, but well brought up, reassuring. It was like a world of Breeges, an innocent Ireland. These women were mostly very ready to chat, whilst I discreetly ticked the box for the appropriate social category. When that work began to drop off, I created other opportunities to talk to people, and publish what they said in free newspapers.
‘What about?’ Maggie asked.
‘Oh, I dunno. Whatever was on people’s minds, especially housewives, or mothers. Stuff, like the need for a pedestrian crossing outside a school. I’d go ask the questions first and find a home for my copy later.
‘So, you were getting paid for having little chats with older women?’
‘Useful experience,’ I quipped.
She gasped in mock horror, and dropped a kiss on the top of my head.
‘Before you ask,’ I said, ‘I can remember only one of the housewives ever making a pass at me.’
‘Are you suggesting you might have forgotten? Do tell.’
‘We’ll have to know each other much better for that. But here’s the deal: if you tell some chambermaid stories, I’ll tell some market research ones.’ I reached over and took her in my arms.
Letters to the Editor
The programme The Fixers is a moment of truth for Ireland. The whole country is emerging. I salute the four women, such different backgrounds, yet alike in showing us how to face up to adversity and leave negativity behind.
This show will turn us all into Coliseum spectators, ready to give the thumbs up or down, as victims are paraded in front of us. Or maybe we are becoming voyeurs, addicted to peeking and prying.
I am sure I am not alone in my admiration for the prodigious empathy and insight shown by Dr Maggie Vernon on the Fixers programme. She seems to be able to read the minds of the participants, to help them to say what they feel most deeply. For me, it is a privilege to watch how they open up and reflect on their own lives, in front of the cameras.
Damian O’Carroll is on the ball when he questions why any sane person would offer themselves to be displayed, patronised, and humiliated by so called experts. It’s hard to watch and vulgar, so I’m cutting it out.
Isn’t it interesting that some listeners who look down on The Fixers, claiming it’s vulgar, are so up to date on the latest episode? Bad enough to be snobbish, worse to be a hypocrite. I bet they tune in every week.
Do the makers of The Fixers not know that a documentary treatment of reality and entertainment are totally different things? The show is a muddled blend of the two.
Dear TV Today,
Like many other people, I make sure to record The Fixers. At last, a show that gets us to sharpen up and smarten up. Welcome to the new Ireland. Let’s hope there’s a second series.
Gay women can take heart from the courage that Jacqueline shows.
And gay men.
All the participants can be role models.
Girls at risk from drifting into crime will be inspired by Tracey’s journey.
Are you nuts? Tracey doesn’t give a shit about right and wrong.
Breege’s story is a reminder of how the strong and vibrant qualities of the religious are sorely needed in our troubled world.
What?! Breege’s story is another chapter in the brutal exploitation of women by the Catholic Church! Here’s wishing The Fixers will give her a new start. She’s a real survivor of horror.
I hope we’ll hear where we can buy Susan’s cupcakes. She is so brave.
I feel Morgan and John are competing, showing off.
I wish Dymphna would act tough sometimes, she’s too sweet to be true. Maybe she’s really a bitch.
Maggie is a total bitch.
Maggie is the only reason I watch The Fixers. The other experts look like amateurs. She has style.
She takes no prisoners, OK. But was she really such a big deal in Oz? How come she’s here?
Jacqueline annoys me. She has no get up and go.
She told her secret to the country. Now she can be herself.
The Irish are always suckers for anyone with a different accent.
Maggie has got us Irish to a T.
Maggie’s freezing stare worked at first, but now she’s overdoing it.
The first time, Maggie really meant it when she said Liz cut her hair better than they did in Australia. Now that’s all Liz wants to talk about, Australia. Her plan is to go there next year, for a working holiday, and she keeps angling for Maggie’s address, but Maggie stays shtum. As things are shaping up, who knows when she’ll be going back?
Whilst Liz is off getting coffee, or fetching scissors and brushes, Maggie turns quickly back to the magazines. Here they are heavy, shiny and up to date: it’s a swiz if she doesn’t get time to leaf through them. Every page is actually an ad, and she has long since settled on her own style, but she likes the improbable world they show. The models – blank and beautiful. The spring collections from Versace – their logo is the Medusa – are opulent, decadent: they stop you dead in your tracks. Maggie starts to play in the mirror. Her stare a promise that no one will daunt her again, an insolent wink celebrates her reinvention, a warm look summons up Matthew’s love, the love that showed her how it’s done. Love for Eoin is possible, because now she can love herself.
Making tiny nicks in Maggie’s hair, feathering to perfect the sharp black angle that slices the faint shade under her cheekbones, Liz is still talking, going on about lifeguards and surfing. Maggie murmurs to sound in agreement. She finds Cora beside her: she half expects her to appear in the mirror. The old bafflement recurs, the way the little gang always knew the moves, how to taunt, keep one step ahead like suddenly giving her the low-down about going to Dino’s after school, walking to save their bus fare for a mineral. Was she coming too? Boys from St Declan’s sometimes turned up. The gang knew their names. But she said she couldn’t that day. The following week, Cora was the one to ask them if they were going to Dino’s. Looks of surprise. A snide, ‘We don’t have to do everything together.’
Maggie jerks back from the reflection, startling Liz in her snipping, but snapping off the memory. Cora had no stare, no winks, no warmth. Cora was shut out from a share of their privileges; their secrets. Maggie knows now there are no such secrets. It was only Cora’s belief that made it seem true. It has taken her ages, but now she knows how it’s done. Working the world is not a hard-won secret, but more like breathing, actually a pushover. What was the phrase John used about Susan’s cupcakes? All you need is a unique selling point. A USP. It can be anything. For Cora, even a hippyish potter mother could have filled the bill, but Cora never saw that. And even her holiday in Waterville, when they had to traipse around and wait while her mother called to souvenir shops with samples of her pottery, could have rated on a par with the gang’s regular trips to Torremolinos. If only she had known how to tell it in a way that could have made her interesting to them. Today, Maggie’s swagger and the spacious prospects she suggests silence every question before it’s formed. Her book has changed women’s lives. The sales figures and the feedback prove it. Despite hitting straight from the shoulder, her agony aunt column, Tell Me About It, attracted a huge postbag. The Fixers is a new step. Eoin doesn’t realise how hot it can be, a hot hit. But he will.
Liz holds a round mirror to the back of Maggie’s head. She often tells Eoin what it’s like, the little whorl where his hair seems to start from. No harm to know what the back of your head looks like, see into the blind spot, but this mirror bit is a ridiculous ritual. Like testing wine in a restaurant. Has anyone ever been known to say it’s not OK? And anyway, if they’ve made a balls of the hair, what the hell can be done at this stage? She takes a noticeable time to consider, while Liz moves the mirror from side to side, then concedes a brusque nod. ‘Fine, fine.’ The truth is that Liz has never quite hit the standard of that first haircut. Lots of things in life are like that.
During the pedicure, Maggie is reminded of the horrible nature of bunions. They’re part of the birthright of women; you rarely see a middle aged foot without a giveaway bulge. If men have them, they’ve too much sense to say anything. The word and the thing both so ugly. Supposedly hereditary. Yet another grievance to hold against her mother.
How absurd to have been daunted by such a comfy person, by this dumpy woman with her penguin walk, her little wiggle. Susan is still comfy, still wanting everything around her to be nice. Out in Duke Street, a refrain comes to Maggie, a harvest festival hymn. Did she hear it on the radio, or in some old movie? Was Breege singing it on camera one evening as she cleared up the dishes? ‘Here we go rejoicing.’
That’s me, Maggie thinks, ‘I go rejoicing.’ Her cover can’t be blown, her power is peaking. She reminds herself why she chose to quit the research route that led into Matthew’s world. She needed to have a closer influence on people’s lives. She feels glee. The audience want to see blood: Eoin has told her that. Fangs let out so gently; their touch will feel like stroking. Heat raised so slowly, it won’t be noticeable, until the temperature reaches boiling point. The famous analogy of the boiled frog. Was it Handy who came up with that? Susan walks like a penguin, toes turned out, but she also looks a bit like a frog: her eyes bulge.
‘See you tonight,’ was enough when she left Eoin earlier that morning. He isn’t expecting her home till seven, but now her body yearns for him. She imagines how the fine grey wool stretched across his shoulders would feel under her touch as they slowly undressed each other.
Outside the Shelbourne, she hops into a taxi.
Susan shuts her door, and throws herself on to the bed. She opens the magazine she has been saving for when she has some me time, in her own space with her family photos. It’s her favourite kind of magazine, lifestyles. They’re highlighting this year’s look for gardens. Leanne has it already: she has gone for all white. When she gets out of here, Susan is going to ring that designer, the one in the article.
‘Gets out of here’ – that’s what people say about jail, and just now, the bungalow doesn’t feel too different. It’s boring, and the others are really annoying. Sometimes she wonders who had the idea of picking such a bunch of weirdos. Probably Eoin: he seems to have a very cynical sense of humour. Why couldn’t he go for ordinary nice people? The ones around here don’t even look normal. A bunch of disasters, losers. Even Dymphna can’t do much for them. Jacqueline wears nothing but dark colours and almost no makeup. Breege is so unfashionable. Her skin is really pasty and her hair is wiry, maybe from being under a veil for so long. Still, she’s not the worst; actually tries to be nice. Not like that little thief, Tracey, always causing trouble with her loud music and her cursing. The one Susan pities is her poor little baby, Keith. He’s been breathing in smoke from the day he was born. She has complained to Padraig about the cigarette burn on the edge of the bath, but she sometimes wonders if he’ll ever take Tracey on.
From her room, Susan always knows when Keith is visiting. The racket, with Tracey and Sharon in the hall, and the toddler grabbing at everything in the sitting room. Tracey never takes any of the ornaments away. Then the TV goes on extra loud, and there’s a mess afterwards, the couch is full of crisp crumbs and lollipop sticks. One day, Tracey called them all out to the garden to play chasing with Keith. Susan watched from her window. Surprising how Breege raced around, getting breathless, her hair looking wilder than ever, and even Jacqueline joined in for a few minutes.
But, take what happened this evening. Susan is trying to rise above it, like Madonna’s song says, but it hurt. She’s thinking of complaining to Padraig. But then, he started it all, when he told them to practise for the final, sixth, programme. But why now? It’s over two weeks away. Ok, so he obviously thought they would find it fun, and they kind of agreed, but now she wished he’d just let them get through programme four first.
‘You’ll get to be in a fashion parade,’ he had said. ‘Walking out one by one to face your families and friends. They’re going to be so proud of your new look. Dymphna wants you all to walk like models. You saw the way the fixers walked, in those intro shots. Now let’s get you ladies on camera.’
They did a few trial runs, just walking out of the front door. And then, Susan for once agreed with Tracey.
‘I’m dyin’ to watch it back.’
But Susan was mortified, shocked to see her own walk. She never realised her toes turned out so much. Still, Tracey didn’t have to start jeering her. That was so mean, laughing about Penguin Bars. Even Breege joined in, because she said the camera doesn’t lie. Then Tracey started slagging them all. She told Breege that she was still walking like a nun, with her arms folded across her chest. Tracey used to hate the nuns in her school, but she’d got really pally with Breege. Jacqueline put on her black look when the others screeched, ‘Look, she how you keep your head down! Hasn’t Dymphna been telling you to do something about that after every show!’. She said she’d work on changing it. Tracey talked about how she herself nearly tipped over in her high heels, and just laughed when Jacqueline said she’d better stay off the vodka. For a minute then, they were all laughing together and suddenly no one seemed to mind, but Susan wasn’t laughing at anyone, she couldn’t be arsed, she was just playing the game. Let them laugh as much as they liked at her. It’s for sure, when Padraig shows some clips as an intro to the next programme, the audience will start laughing at her too.
She needs someone to talk to, but who? Padraig is a real gentleman, but there’s only so much you can say to a man, isn’t there? Rushing away, leaving them all, Susan suddenly doesn’t feel she belongs. She gets a phonecall and comes back, lets them know about the feedback: ‘Mam’s recipe is the most popular,’ she tells them. No one seems to care, they just look at her. ‘I’m talking about my cupcake tests,’ she says. ‘The studio audience.’
‘Good for her, good for you’, says Breege. But even she turns away to talk about the fashion parade.
For days Tracey has been saying, ‘Chill out, Susan.’ Sure she’s stressed, but she’s not the only one. They don’t really pal around together like they’re supposed to, unless Padraig prompts them to. Jacqueline is very private and hard to get to know. If anyone looks into her room, she acts really paranoid about whatever she’s doing on her laptop. The other night, just to be friendly, Susan asked her about K.D. Lang: did she like her music. It was as if she’d insulted her. Jacqueline just cut her off, clammed up. Tracey is the opposite. She’s always asking them to call in and chat. At first no one did, but a few nights after the first show she heard Breege give a soft knock, and Tracey went, ‘Come on in.’
Now Tracey is on a high after the fashion show run-through, and she’s playing music very loud. Barbie Girl. Susan knocks on her door, asks her to turn it down. Tracey is dancing around the room, and doesn’t stop. She wants Susan to join in. Susan says, ‘I just want a bit of hush. That song is doing my head in. I don’t want to go to bed with a thumping headache, like last night.’
‘Do you want a tableh?’ says Tracey, holding out a packet of Solpadine. Susan hates it how she can never best Tracey. With her, it’s always, ‘No problemo.’
Still, Susan is hugging herself. Being on TV every Sunday is so worth it. She can hardly wait to get more advice from John about her new business. He’s given her some stuff to read and she’s taking notes, doing her homework, crystalising her ideas, just as he told her to. The stuff he gave her to read is boring, reminds her of Cathal going on about his business, but now it’s about Susan’s own new life. So she just gets on with it, how to register her business and handle her tax. But what she likes is the market research, and the baking that comes before it.
But before she can get back to that, she has to get through tomorrow night. She’s never sure how to answer Maggie, who seems so clever, like she knows loads of stuff. Maggie even seems to put Dymphna, Morgan and John down. But Susan feels that she has the audience on her side. They’re with her on her journey. And she thinks Maggie understands about her Mam, and how proud she’d be to watch Susan on TV, to know she was starting over with her cake business, moving on from her marriage and Cathal.
She can survive anything, because she survived that day, when the teacher called her out of class, and the head nun drove her home. All the other girls were staring. The door of the house, with the wooden nameplate, Monserrat, standing open. Mam would never have left it like that. Neighbours were coming in and out with plates of cooked ham and fruitcake and extra teacups. She heard Dad saying that Mam was dead. Kevin was crying, but Susan knew it wasn’t true. Dad was lying. There was a new batch of Mam’s fairy cakes on the wire rack.
‘She can’t die and leave me. She can’t. She’d never do that.’
‘Say goodbye to your Mam now. You have to be a good girl and mind your poor Dad,’ the neighbours said.
That was the year she failed her Inter Cert, and told Dad that she was through with school.
The Fixers is turning out kind of different from what Susan expected. She’s wondering about people being able to change. Of course, that’s what the show is supposed to be all about, but really people stay the way they are, mostly.
‘Let’s take a look at Jacqueline’s vision and Dymphna’s expert help.’
Padraig’s language didn’t quite fit Jacqueline.
Dymphna wheeled forward a flip chart, and Jacqueline used a range of markers to draw sketches of how she would like to look: jeans of different cuts and colours, boots, soft sweatshirts. The first was in the colour of her eyes, turquoise. There were cheers when she inserted long earrings and promised to come on the fifth programme with the spoils of a shopping trip with Dymphna (‘We’ll be going with your own style.’) and a new hairdo. Even while we were airing the show, women called in looking for dates with Jacqueline, and men with suggestions that they would be able to convert her, if she’d only go out with them. She accepted all these tributes with little emotion. Maggie had a little niggle of worry about Jacqueline’s flat manner and made a note that Padraig should keep a discreet eye on her. We wouldn’t want anyone to actually break down, just feel stretched.
On this, the fourth programme, Morgan appeared in the kitchen with Tracey, as she picked two mugs off the pine mug-tree on the counter. His face was stern as she put in two sugars and reached for a cigarette.
‘If that’s your breakfast, what else will have during the day?’
‘At eleven I’ll be Lee Marvin.’
‘Let’s look at your breakfast first. I want to see you eating some good cereal. If you can’t face fruit, then at least start with juice. I’d say mango and passion fruit, to start with?’
A lucky mention. Tracey laughed, ‘That’d be sweet?’
But at the first sip, she made a face.
‘Now, your smoking habit.’ This was his main focus, to see her quit cigarettes by the end of the show. Astute, that – a respectable ambition, shared by many viewers, so finally a basis for fellow feeling. Even more, it would be a step towards a more mainstream way of life. They visited a pharmacy to let Tracey choose a method for quitting. Nicotine gum, spray, patches. She took the lot, tore open a package, and fixed a patch on her arm.
‘I’ll need to be plastered all over with them.’
‘No, one at a time,’ the chemist said. ‘They come in different strengths.’
‘Let’s work up from the strongest as you cut down,’ said Morgan.
‘Do they give the taste of smoke? I do love tha’.’
‘No, how could they? You’d better chew a piece of gum also now, so.’
Morgan gave her a diary – ‘I’ll be doing nothing but writin’’ – and told her to pick a date for quitting, then proceeded to pick one for her. He left her with leaflets full of photos of damaged lungs and little fact boxes on smelly hair, bad breath, and expense.
After a snatch of clips from the bungalow, funny and uneasy moments of their catwalk practice, John’s live studio guidance of Breege about opening a bank account and renting an apartment was light and fast, just what I wanted. No conflict there, so best not to linger.
We switched to a recording of him at a flip chart in the bungalow living room, with Breege staring on, looking intent, a little pucker in her brow.
‘Breege, my suggestion for your future work journey is to help people who have to make mega changes. But you’ll need a completely new skill set. I’m thinking maybe training the trainer. And for openers, what about Toastmasters?’
Breege’s head bobbed quickly, as they bent together over her draft CV. Brief, plain.
‘It’s getting too cosy around here,’ I cued Maggie, seconds before the recording finished. ‘Let’s have more probing Ok, take it away.’
Maggie skillfully commandeered the studio conversation before John could get a word in.
‘Well, Breege, where does that leave you?’
‘Dymphna and John are great at making the most of my experience.’
‘You do know, don’t you, that the Ireland you left behind is very different from the Ireland of right now? From – what was it – something like fifty years of praying – what does one have to show?’
Breege sounded stung. I appreciated that this was just what Maggie wanted, to provoke a spirited riposte.
‘I taught school for eight years and, in Holy Redeemer, I was in charge of the garden and the chapel, including the renovations.’
‘Ok, well I guess John is sorting you out as regards marketable skills. What about also talking to him about teaching meditation? That could go down well with non-believers also. But for now, let’s look at some of your other issues. On the screen, some ‘before’ shots of Breege’s entry to the set, on programme one, her arms crossed tightly over her chest.
‘Ok, so we’ve seen you talking to John about working as a trainer. But look at your body here. You can’t impress people with body language like that. Tell me, what are you protecting yourself against?’
‘Folding our arms that way was part of the Rule.’
‘So, you’re still keeping to the Rule?’
Breege looked confused.
‘No, it’s just…’
‘Go on, always finish your sentences. Just what?’
‘It feels natural now.’
‘Natural to shield your body, flatten your breasts, as if they were something to be ashamed of. Is that it?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘If you walk into an interview like that, you’ll be gutted. Breege, remember, you’ve released yourself, so act that way. Unlock your arms, present your breasts proudly. I’ll be checking to see if you’re really following our instructions, so make sure to practise with Dymphna. Now, let’s move on.’
Cue in another pre-recorded piece.
Susan with Maggie, first in a supermarket. ‘Now, Susan, you’re going in for cake making. Have you a sweet tooth yourself?’ Maggie asked.
‘There were always home baked goodies for tea in our house, Mam saw to that. My best friends loved coming home with me.’
Maggie nodded coldly. ‘So, you’ve inherited her baking skills. Is she watching the show?’
Not like Maggie to forget a key fact.
Susan’s face crumpled. ‘Mam died when I was in fourth year.’
‘Oh, sorry,’ said Maggie vaguely. ‘Well, she would be very proud.’
Susan still looked upset, so Maggie cut in with, ‘Was it sudden?’
‘She made a batch of fairy cakes that very morning. I saw them on the wire rack.’
‘So, you’ve lovely memories of her.’
Susan nodded, her eyes glistening. I cut back to the studio, where Maggie hurried on from the painful subject, only to broach another, asking Susan how things stood with Cathal.
Fair play to Susan, she rallied at the mention of her hubby.
‘That heel. I’ll show him. I can cope without him.’
‘Will you tell us how the break up happened? Please?’
Susan gave her little wiggle. She was bursting to talk. ‘Last year, Cathal said he was going to bring us on a really good holiday during the summer, just me and the kids.’
‘You often went abroad, right?’
‘Yes, yes, big time. So I told him I was getting sick of the Costa, year after year. I mean, we had an apartment there, so it wasn’t much of a holiday for me, I still had all the laundry and cleaning and stuff like that to do. I wanted to skip it. Go to a hotel in London or somewhere. Get a real break.’
‘And he went on about the kids needing to keep up their water sports. Conor had only one more cert to get, then he’d have his dinghy qualification.’
‘So, you were overruled, your wishes were ignored.’
‘Not only that, he invited the kids’ friends too! So they sided with him and there was all the more work for me! All I could say was, “Not much change there for you then. Sure you’re down in Spain with work that often.” And he went: “Ah, no, this is different, this is a “family break”.’ She marked the words with a scratching gesture in the air. ‘Family my arse. With the other kids along? Sure all they did was make a bigger mess for me to clean up. Back at home, all I used to hear was how he was getting busier all the time at the bank, with golfing trips to the Algarve and Marbella, no expenses spared, to treat clients. Then his outings to Irish venues, the swanky golf clubs, all that type of stuff… “Not again,” I’d say and he’d go, “Look, love, it’s the job, you know that. This is all for you and the twins.” I mean, my arse. It was all such bullshit.’
The audience swept with the surge, her energy, and burst into a murmur of support. We flicked the camera to them, then back to Maggie.
‘According to him, no one else could take on that work?’ Maggie prompted.
Susan rolled her eyes, fired up by the audience’s response. ‘He spoofed about “client relationship management”’ – she sketched double quotes again – ‘and how he was trying to “delegate” some of the trips on to the next guy in line.’ She shook her head. ‘“But it really isn’t a good time to do that just now,” he’d always say.’
‘Did he know when it would have been good?’
‘Well, not at bonus review time anyway, and that seemed to go on forever. I mean–’ Susan stopped midsentence as Padraig came into view carrying a tray. A close up revealed that it was set with a lighter and a photo in a little metal dish.
Maggie addressed Susan, ‘This all has to do with your earlier life; the one that’s over, now yourself and Cathal are breaking up.’ She pointed at the big screen, ‘This is a photo of the two of you in a restaurant he booked one night, on your ‘holiday’. You told me earlier, when you first showed it to me, that it reminds you that Cathal was a serial cheat. Tell us about it.’
Susan talked about sitting with Cathal in a restaurant, El Torre, in Marbella. In the photo, he is leaning across the table, reaching for her hand with both of his.
‘The headwaiter took it,’ Susan said. ‘Cathal always went OTT chatting up staff in restaurants. The heel. Such a dick.’
‘So burn the photo,’ directed Maggie. ‘You can shed his name, and your life with him, let it go up in smoke, and start reinventing Susan here. Now.’
Susan obediently took the lighter proffered by Padraig and struck the button it with her thumb. Nothing happened. Padraig hovered, unsure if he should help. The audience were keyed up, willing Susan, who stopped after the third attempt, to get it over with. The camera moved off Susan, and just as I was about to call a hasty break, out of synch, Maggie pulled out her own slim gold lighter and flicked it open before passing it to Susan. From the bottom corner of the photo, the flame moved in wavering hues of orange and blue, leaving behind a soft drift of ash. Considering how frail it was, the photo made a brave show as it burned, and the air sang with a slight tinge of acrid smoke. The audience didn’t actually applaud, but a feeling of slightly shamefaced approval spread. We picked up on at least one woman in tears: for Susan, for Cathal, for their marriage, or her own? That Susan’s object didn’t collapse immediately as all the others had, made me insist on answers: had the first lighter been tested? In the rehearsal, it actually worked OK, so the consensus was that Susan had been too nervous. But for me nevertheless, the malfunction, tiny and huge, remained unexplained. I felt that something out in the spheres had shifted, and was suddenly fearful of the wild play of chance.
It does me good to see how bubbly Susan is.
How can you say that? She’s tone deaf to everyone except herself, but she thinks she’s in perfect tune.
She wants to get on, of course she’s pushy.
She was quite right to kick Cathal out. She’s determined to start her life over.
Well, there might be more behind his philandering than she says. Maybe she wasn’t meeting his needs. After all, we haven’t heard his side of the story.
I’m Cathal, and her cooking sucks. I’ve lost two stone since I LEFT HER.
Gosh, let’s say no more about that. Did you notice her face when other participants were being interviewed?
She really looks down on them, especially Tracey.
Would you blame her?
Yes, I would. They’re meant to be loyal to each other.
Who said anything about loyalty?
Susan doesn’t know the meaning of the word.
They’re in competition,,and you can taste the envy.
Anyway, I bet Susan’ll do well in business. She takes no prisoners.
John doesn’t sound very positive about her start-up.
What does he know ? What a windbag.
It’s Breege I worry about. She’s too good for this world.
Too good to be true, I’d say…
What is happening to Jacqueline? I thought she is supposed to be on a diet.
Morgan will sort her out.
I doubt if she listens to him.
None of them do.
He speaks a lot of sense.
That guy annoys me. His hair is too perfect.
Dymphna is worse.
Look at how she’s styling them.
She has her work cut out with Breege.
Ouch! But look at Susan.
‘Well?’ I looked around the table. Our big pow-wow after the programme aired meant giving everyone their say, however tiresome the contributions. We were moving into the last segmented programme. The final one would be the walk of pride, with their family and friends. But first we discussed the latest reactions, both from the bungalow and from the public. The question of who was most popular with the viewers loomed large. Who were they rooting for? Andrea and I were proved wildly wrong in predicting that Susan would keep her early lead. The latest feedback showed that Breege was the most popular. Apparently still as innocent as the day she left for the convent, the summer she sat her Leaving Cert. She had the knack of turning that innocence into a likeable persona. The audience’s regard was rising in step with ever more open contempt for the Catholic Church.
‘Breege is certainly open and non-defensive,’ said Maggie.
‘I’m not convinced she has the fuckability – metaphorically speaking – that we need,’ John liked to sound hard-boiled.
‘As long as it’s only metaphorical. You had me scared for a moment there.’ Morgan had to be a lad, too.
I steered the discussion on to Jacqueline. As a lesbian, I thought she belonged to a protected species. In newly tolerant Ireland, any reservations or criticism could sound like prejudice.
‘She’s the opposite of Tracey. Less personality, but also less purchase for dislike,’ Maggie said.
‘How do you mean?’ asked Morgan.
‘We agreed that Tracey’s obscenities and criminal past will be forgiven only by people who warm to her, her bright bravery. Whereas Jacqueline’s lack of personality is clear, but won’t tell against her – with most viewers, anyway – because she’s part of a minority.’
‘There’s no way Jacqueline will be the favourite. It’d be a big step for an Irish audience to pick out a lesbian,’ said Dymphna.
‘But it gives the gay community someone to root for,’ I said.
‘I don’t see many rooting for Tracey.’
‘No, Maggie,’ I said, ‘but there’d be a taboo here, maybe more than in Australia, about coming down hard on a working class heroine. One who at least sounds like she’s going straight. Then there’s her age. She’s so young. I can see lots of people willing her on.’
‘Not much of a heroine, if you ask me, Eoin,’ said John.
What I thought of saying was, ‘Actually, I don’t think we will ask you.’ What I did say was: ‘I like the mixture in her of street smart and lost child.’
‘To me she’s a great little mother and the audience are taking baby Keith to their hearts,’ said Dymphna.
‘He’ll be a champion wee curser before he gets to playschool,’ said Morgan.
‘Poor kid, it’s not his fault if he’s getting such a lousy start,’ said John.
I exchanged a laughing look with Maggie.
‘Come on, we’re going off the point. Let’s get back to Tracey,’ I said. ‘She’s never going to make an apology or express remorse, and that’s what is now demanded from offenders.’
‘I know Tracey’s type. She has no intention of looking for a job. Not a sign of gratitude out of her,’ said John. ‘And when you think of the chances she’s been given…’
‘No gratitude, no remorse, that could dilute people’s approval for her,’ I commented.
‘No, no, none of you understand,’ Maggie said. ‘We don’t want undiluted approval. The audience need to have something to dislike in each participant, that’s essential. Tracey is outspoken and cheeky, and some viewers will be delighted with her. Then there will be people who will turn off her as a shoplifter. Even if she actually does go straight, they’ll never see her as anything else. Her kicking against the bungalow regime or not apologising will be neither here nor there for them. I hear those differences already, in this room.’
We moved on to shape the bungalow session, and to Tracey’s significant object.
‘Just make sure she stays off the vodka the night before, Padraig,’ was Morgan’s comment.
‘Maybe we need someone going on well jarred,’ said John.
Morgan and Dymphna laughed.
‘She doesn’t need it,’ Maggie said.
As with so much that Maggie predicted, so it happened: attitudes to Tracey were all over the shop. It is part of the conventions of TV that anyone who appears becomes a resident of a different country, popular or unpopular from the first sighting, more or less in spite of the evidence. Susan also: facing the biggest change, arguably the most recently victimised. Yet the flow of sympathy was slowing.
It was a day of drizzle that seemed to find its way inside, when the crowded café smelled of wet clothes. I was talking about Breege’s courage. So long shut up in silence, she now, in Toastmasters, dared to speak without a pause on random topics to an audience of strangers. We made a short recording of it. I was impressed, but Maggie shrugged.
‘What’s the big deal? She had a good education didn’t she? All that theology. All that talking to God. Surely He’s a more intimidating audience than mere mortals.’
Maybe because, by now, each of us picked up intuitively what the other one meant, this issue found us determined to resist one another’s suggestions.
‘Do you always have to turn on the withering stare on or off the show?’ I asked Maggie. ‘Couldn’t you just be kind?’
‘Look,’ she said. ‘I won’t patronise Breege. She’s an impressive woman, not a transition year student.’
We weren’t connecting, but I knew better than to resist Maggie when in stony mode.
When Dymphna’s segment was actually screened, Breege – easily nonplussed but intact underneath – came across as well motivated. This happened mostly through Maggie’s wizardry, the way she artfully drew out a new awareness of what Breege had to offer to the other women, especially Tracey – who used to think she couldn’t ever talk to a nun – and by implication, a wider public.
As the video replay rolled, Dymphna reported in the studio, ‘Breege and myself went shopping. First we worked from this swatch of Breege’s best colours.’ She held the swatch up for the camera and the audience. ‘It’s great how we could focus on the best tones for her skin and hair – “Quiet Autumn” tones as it turned out – to match to a new rig-out for interviews. She wound up with a brown coat and green suit. We’ve also been picking up from John and Maggie’s sessions, to work on her overall presentation for job-seeking.’
I sometimes wondered if Dymphna was for real, but her ratings were always acceptable, neither dipping nor rising.
‘Let’s hear from Breege herself,’ Maggie cut in.
Breege was enthusiastic. ‘Dymphna’s great at making the most of my appearance. She’s talking to me about a body wrap and a facial. I’m looking forwards to all that,’ she giggled.
Then, Jacqueline’s fitness programme. Morgan explained that, being vegetarian, she needed to be sure to include lots of protein. ‘There are loads of recipes for brilliant bean dishes. I can let you have some.’
The way she said thanks didn’t augur well for her compliance.
Morgan had another try, ‘I’d like to see you shedding a few more pounds also, Jacqueline.’
‘I’ve been this weight since my teens. It’s my build. I’ve no problem with it. I just wear dark clothes.’
‘Morgan,’ Maggie cut in. ‘In my view, Jacqueline’s diet doesn’t need attention just now.’
Jacqueline’s face had darkened. Now it shone at Maggie’s words. The camera caught her smile, and avoided Morgan’s pout.
Jacqueline. Hard to read, very dutiful, in some ways the most conventional. Part of her programme was to attend a gay disco, she who probably hadn’t been to many discos. A home bird at heart, unwilling to move from her small town. Maggie got her to agree, albeit sullenly, that she’d begin salsa lessons.
‘Now Tracey,’ Maggie said. ‘Talk to me about this photo.’
The school shot went up on the big screen.
‘I kept it safe. I always knew where it was.’
‘Why do you think you treasured this particular photo?’
‘Me jumper was clean that day. I still love lookin’ at the little goldy crown in the crest.’
‘You grew up in the flats off Melody Street, near the Liffey. What do you remember from that time?’
The camera got full value from Tracey’s straight look into Maggie’s eyes, as she answered almost matter of factly: ‘Mostly batterin’.’
‘Your father was violent?’
‘When he was drunk, he’d batter the lads.’
‘What about the girls?’
‘No, the lads more so. Especially Jimmy.’
‘Jimmy. Where does he come in the family?’
‘A year and a bit older than me, me brother and me best pal. I used to hear him cryin’ on the other side of the wall – the one between me room and the bathroom, real thin it was – after me Da had took the belt to him. I ran in once, when I heard the loud way Da was talkin’. Jimmy was holdin’ on the side of the sink, and me Da was lashin’ at him with the belt off his trousers. And Jimmy’s were pulled down around his ankles, he was kind of bent over. His legs looked real pale. “Stop, Da stop it,” I shouted, but he just turned and asked me, real cold like, “Do yez want the fuckin’ same?” He wasn’t cryin’, Jimmy never cried at the time. Later, I’d tap on the wall, after I heard him sobbin’ quiet like, so me Da wouldn’t hear. We had a code: two taps for meet you after school, one for let’s try to go on the lam. He taught me how to tap so softly that it didn’t waken the little kids. Often me Ma’d have nothing in the house for breakfast, but we’d take our school bags, drop them behind the wall of the flats and go down to Eason’s or Penneys.
Her spiel brought silence from everyone.
My thought was, ‘Go on, milk the sensation.’ I didn’t see Tracey as a victim, because she didn’t see herself as one. She wasn’t ashamed. That was different from having no shame.
‘Say more about the shoplifting.’
I might have known Maggie wouldn’t shrink from naming it. Risky: my scalp crawled with fear as Tracey went into detail. We needed to cut to the audience.
‘I’d take the dear stuff, like special pens, and slip them into me bumbag.’
‘It’d be under me school jumper.’
‘Tights, tee shirts, purses. I was good at the shopliftin,’ real quick, and I looked the innocent.’
I couldn’t keep from smiling, but when we tracked around the audience, they were stony.
I was scared shitless also, about how this conversation would play with the management. After the sob stuff about her difficult childhood, we were now in more dangerous territory. Was Tracey being allowed, even led, to elaborate on the craft and lore of thieving? I began to concoct arguments, that this could be a kind of crash course in crime prevention for shopkeepers and shoppers, shock value for them to hear how they made it easy for robbers.
‘So Jimmy put me onta the pickin’. A lot more risky.’
‘How does that work?’
‘You havta distract the mark, bump into her, pretend you’ve fallen, or you’ve lost your Ma.’
‘It’s usually a her?’
‘Yeh, their bags are half open, or have just a flap hangin’over. I was small for me age, so they’d be sorry for me.’
‘So are we,’ I thought. Maggie’s neutral demeanour was drawing out more and more colour. Tracey’s’ candour just held the line between keeping and losing my sympathy.
‘Sometimes Jimmy’d do the bumpin’, or he’d put a chalk mark on a woman’s back, if he saw her puttin’ away a purse full of notes, and I’d jostle against her at the door, and one of us’d lift the purse. Then I’d shove it under me clothes. We might get a few before we’d leave, always separate, first slow, taggin’ along behind someone well dressed. Then we’d leg it into the laneway. If there was really no school, I’d tell Ma that I’d take Sharon, and we’d put the purses under her in the buggy.’
The camera picked up Sharon in the audience, biting her lip. Lacking Tracey’s sass, she nevertheless took the attention coolly enough, smiled.
‘One day the cops brought me home in a squad car, and gave out to me Ma. Me Da was real angry, and told me he should take his belt to me, too.’
‘What happened with the guards?’ John had finally got a word in.
‘They gave me a warning about givin’ up the robbin.’
‘And did you give it up?’
Tracey laughed and shook her head.
She went on about how Jimmy was spending more and more time outside of home, and was starting to run drugs. ‘Takin’ them too.’
Tracey had never become a user:
‘Jimmy told me he wasn’t going to stay, not with the batterins. One morning, real early, he packed a few things in his Adidas bag. He was tiptoein’, but I heard him crossin’ the floor of the kitchen and out the door that always gave a creak. I lay listening, hopin’ we could meet regular, that some days he’d be waitin’ for me at the school wall. Me Ma and Da were out of it, after a rough night, so they didn’t hear him. That nigh’, Sharon started askin “Where’s Jimmy?”, and kept cryin. All me Da said was, “That fella’d better not come back here.”’
The camera moved on to Sharon, in the audience. She looked close to tears, holding little Keith ever closer.
‘You’ve got the spine of a survivor,’ Maggie told Tracey. ‘And you’ve a way of fitting in without blending in.’ She was thinking of Tracey’s defiance at the bungalow, how she went on smoking, playing loud music and changing her earrings at mealtimes, despite what anyone said. ‘That’ll stand to you, but this time you have to keep your promise to go straight. It’s for Keith’s future, also.’
Just on cue, the camera picked up Dymphna’s soft look.
In a change of tempo, Padraig handed Tracey a crumpled and stained object: the blue bumbag into which she had slipped many purses and wallets. Tracey got up, threw it with force from one side of the studio to the other. It landed, as intended, in a large waste bin. The throw was a pledge to go straight from that day forth. She had more relish than either Breege or Jacqueline for her task.
Tracey’s impact was coming from how she balanced contrition and cheekiness, sounding matter of fact about both crime and punishment. She schooled the panel into treating her with respect. At Maggie’s mention of Keith, she flowered.
‘I want him to stay in school, learn a lo’. Ge’ a good job.’
‘Maybe a carpenter.’
Talking about how ready she was to change, Tracey came close to crying, and I was hoping that Maggie would hold it over till the ad break before the third segment, the best place for crying, as then we would keep the viewers to the end. Not only did the tears link her to her real age, they were a kind of tribute to audience sentiment, a balance to her sounding so cool about lawbreaking.
I could feel the audience softening, and I was softening with them.
Standpoint by Damian O’Carroll
Though wholesome, the voices of critics are less strident than the admirers. Many viewers are already rejecting the premise of The Fixers: viewers who see no need for us to apologise for or abandon all that is summed up in the lovely word meithal, to embrace instead a crassly competitive spirit between the ‘experts’ as well as the benighted participants. The mountain is in labour and brings forth a mouse. Ominous birth pangs, and in Ireland especially disruptive, where our traditions have been so deeply underwritten by all the Christian churches. I fear we are now without a set of values we can call our own, just the lazily absorbed urgings to consume and claim entitlement.
Nor is this the only contradiction: at times, the emphasis is on how these women are forging a completely new way of being, yet at others, it is all about their having found their true selves. We are to love them up to a point, then want them to fall. They go on retelling what we ought never be privy to, like sad personal crises. In the jaded vernacular ‘it’s all about a journey’ and any step is ‘awesome’. Therefore discussion is straightaway at an end.
We couldn’t have bought the publicity that Damian’s regular mention of The Fixers brought to our show. His disapproval made the claim for its relevance.
Susan is researching cupcakes in an American magazine. She finds herself salivating, even though she has seen these multicoloured goodies before. This isn’t just recipes. It gives lots of suggestions about displaying the cakes. She likes the twirly stands. Or they can be set out in rows, colour themed. She sees a window full of them: pink, mauve, blue, yellow, or red, all finished off with swirls of butter cream, so pretty, so different. And the sprinkles are the really fun part.
Her script for tomorrow isn’t finalised. She’s till trying out what she’s going to say. It’s like going back to drama class saying her piece in front of the mirror. But will she keep on message, as Padraig says? Will the nerves overcome her? She lists the points she wants to make: out there, no one has time to bake, kids these day are really fussy, needing new and trendy stuff to eat, then you have to be very careful about health and safety. She will use her Mam’s fairy sponge mixture for the bases, but if someone has an allergy, there are lots of substitutes for the dairy or the gluten.
She ignored the grumbles from Jacqueline about trying to get into the bathroom and how long it was engaged. ‘The mirrors are all cloudy! This happens all the time!’ Earlier, Susan called Breege into her bedroom for a practice. Of course, Breege didn’t really get the message, she’s a bit old fashioned, like she didn’t know what frosting was, and she suggested putting Smarties or Dolly Mixture on, instead of the sprinkles, but Susan has to admit she’s not the worst, quite kind really.
Breege asked if she was going to sell any other kind of cake, her favourite were the fruit scones Susan made on their second day in the bungalow. Susan said she was well able to but of course the money is in cupcakes, given the gap in the market for them, and going forward, they would they would make the most money But they weren’t just for children’s parties. In the States they send them as a thank-you gift, or bring them to dinner instead of wine or flowers.
In fairness, Breege did back her up, suggesting she could sell them for First Communions and Ordinations, or for the tea after a big match.
‘Sure,’ said Susan, vaguely, ‘those too.’ Actually Breege reminded her of another point: They could have company logos on the frosting, for retirement or product launches, the rugby internationals.
Breege was sure Maggie would be a great help. ‘She’s so clever. And John is an expert.’
‘That’s what The Fixers is all about, isn’t it? Though of course, I have to keep doing my own research. I’m not just killing time here, like some.’
Breege paused, as if she was going to ask something, then she gave Susan a big hug. ‘Just talk to John and Maggie the way you’ve talked to me, it’s for sure you’ll win them over.’
Susan was thinking of bed,turning back the bedspread. Breege went as if to help, started picking at the sheet.
‘Can I ask you a very personal question?’ Breege says.
What’s coming next, Susan wonders.‘What about?’
‘You’re the only one of us who has been married.’
‘We’re an unusual bunch of women, all right. But so what?’ Now Susan is curious, waves to Breege to sit down. Notices she is red in the face.
‘I was wondering… I don’t know anything about what it’s like.’
Susan can’t believe it, that Breege would be even thinking about marriage or men. She thinks back over the talk she gave to Ciara, before she left the primary school. What they used to call the facts of life. Back then, she also added lots about love and commitment. That was before she got the lowdown on Cathal.
‘Lots of Irishmen are married batchelors,’ she says. ‘And their wives find it out too late.’ She sees how sad Breege looks, and starts to go more positive. ‘But you’re a non-drinker, and you go to Mass. There must be guys out there that don’t care so much about looks, or having kids. You might pick up a nice decent country batchelor, or a guy who’s been in a seminary.’
‘Someone, you mean, like Padraig, do you think?’ Breege ventures.
Susan doesn’t know how to answer. She remembers the priest in California that Breege told them about, and changes the subject. ‘They say there are more single women than men, why I don’t know, but still, there’s hope for us all.’
‘But what I don’t know,’ says Breege, ‘is how do you pick them up?’
‘Laugh at their jokes, ask their advice, but make sure to have a way of earning money yourself.’
Breege frowns in concern, and Susan adds, ‘I hope you find someone sincere. Sorry, Breege, I’m shattered. It’s way past my bedtime.’
‘Thanks, all the same,’ says Breege, as Susan hugs her at the door. ‘I might have a few words with Maggie also. She’s a psychologist after all.’
Susan is in bed, but wakeful. Maggie. She’s such a notice box. But there’s something else about her too, that makes Susan wonder.
Before breakfast, into her exercise gear, and out for an hour’s speed walking. She has to be in top form from now on. When she checks in the fridge, her supplements are all back.
‘What will they find to talk about, after The Fixers?’
‘Who?’ asked Maggie.
‘The people of Ireland, of course,’ I said, laughing. ‘Maybe some are wondering what they used to talk about before.’ After The Fixers… One part of me longed for that day to arrive, another part dreaded it. I wouldn’t easily find it again, that reach into the Irish public conversation with itself.
Maggie was admiring the half crab I had just put in front of her, with a big bowl of garlic mayonnaise, and as I turned to pour some wine, I caught her look, kind and amused.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Maybe they are wondering that too,’ as she reached up to stroke my cheek.
‘Great texture,’ I said, self-consciously.
‘I like a face a man has lived in.’
I held off TV talk till we were stirring our coffee.
‘The next programme is really critical.’
‘What programme would that be?’
I made the gesture of pouring the water jug over her. ‘Guess.’
‘Eoin, that’s what you said about all the others.’
‘Seriously, love, this one has to push the girls into reality. The green light for a follow-up series, and the chance of selling it on to other countries depends on how the show keeps its promise up to the end.
‘The big cheese at the station. Peter Scully, for one, Brendan’s boss. He rang up to congratulate me, but there was a subtext: pressure right to the end. Quelle surprise! I want to keep on testing their plans in depth, with lots of challenge and then the last one, with their fashion parade, the new looks, can be sweeter, calmer. A softer approach, it’s the only prize we can afford to give them.’
‘You can’t be serious. Makeup and dress sense are typically dynamite. That’ll stir up the audience. More reaction than ever.’
‘Well, anyway, we’ll pull it all together on the last one, to clinch the reinventions. Peter wants us to revisit the participants after a year or so. He’s thinking maybe bring them back with their stories of independence at the launch of another series.’
‘You mean it won’t be the lost kilos or the new romances that we’ll want to review?’
‘Those also,’ I laughed, ‘but mainly how The Fixers equipped them for living differently.’
‘Well, that could apply to only three of them. I’m not expecting Jacqueline to make any great change.’
‘I’ve most hopes for Susan.’
She put down her glass. ‘How come?’
‘She pushes herself so brashly that she gives really good value, and anyway, a start-up has potential for drama.’
Maggie stood up suddenly and swept into the bin the wreckage of our crab supper.
‘Whoa! Why so fast? I had plans for those shells.’
‘Plans?’ she asked testily.
‘To flame them.’
‘What on earth for?’
‘To prepare a bisque.’
‘Not really, I’ll be using brandy. It’s more about depth of flavour. Same idea as using chicken bones to make stock.’
Maggie shrugged, went to the fridge, and produced a bowl of a thick pink substance, and one spoon ‘C’mon,’ she said, tilting her head towards the bedroom. ‘While you were having a shower, I created this amazing dessert from strawberry Angel Delight and milk. It took me five minutes, but you want to feel how well chilled it is.’
‘You’re joking,’ I said. ‘I love you very much, but there are limits… I haven’t had that stuff since my cub scout camp.’
‘Oh, so you don’t want me to lower the tone?’
I got up hastily and followed.
The taste was as false as the colour, but sometimes sacrifices are worth making.
I would gloat over that memory all through the next day, though there was so much else to keep a grip on. I worked hard to keep personally abreast of the huge pile of feedback and I needed to deal with Morgan’s hissy fits. He was peevish because Maggie had once again stolen some of his time on the last programme. All the Fixers had lots at stake in their roles. Then there were the popularity ratings. I wasn’t sure that it really suited us that Breege was so far in the lead. I would have preferred more of a close run race.
‘Peter likes how the public are at home with the format and how the women have distinct profiles and their own following,’ I told Maggie over coffee. ‘Then he reminded me to keep a little spice of surprise for round about now. He’s scared of the dreaded mid-show effect, the sag in loyalty.’
‘What did you tell him?’
‘I told him, “Of course, Mr Scully,” of course. Translated, that means: I’d like you, sweetheart, to get involved in the Susan interview about her business. Jizz up the tempo again.’
‘Will he have problem if I do that?’
‘Who, John? No of course not. Unlike that prat, Morgan, he’s not precious.’
I was looking for turbulence in the dispatches from the bungalow, and Tracey’s refusal to supplement her breakfast of a half cup of tea and a cigarette, in defiance of Morgan’s diet sheets, was good stuff, but less so Jacqueline’s dumping by the girl she’d dated after the disco. Maggie gave Padraig a discreet nudge to keep a special eye on Jacqueline. She still had a concern about Jacqueline’s mood. ‘We don’t want anyone to collapse,’ she told Padraig. He was hardly any closer to Jacqueline than the first day, but took opportunities to chat as they walked in the garden. He reported back to Maggie that Jacqueline was less tense on a one-to-one basis and he had found, by chance, that the open air brought her to life.
Susan and Breege rarely worried us: the second because years of discipline equipped her to ride out the small storms of the bungalow and the studio; the first because she barely noticed small storms that did not centre on her.
Everything that usually happens slowly now moved at speed. Damian suddenly replaced the paper’s usual TV critic, taking on her column in addition to his own for an unspecified (but reputedly short) period. I wondered if he had engineered this shift, which gave him more scope to write at length about The Fixers. The regular critic was said to be miffed, but no one else was complaining. Not Damian, who had a rich seam of material to work, not his readers, who found in his comments a weekly tonic. Nor was I. Damian had become a kind of shadow twin to me, and I saluted him in my mind as an active member of the Fixers community.
The first shot from the bungalow showed Susan checking papers. She wet a finger to turn the page. If I had nothing else against her, there was that. I can’t stand it, the thought of bubbly spittle smearing pristine paper. Sitting beside her, John looked at her computer screen, then began probing. He wanted lots of airtime to make an impression. She was finalising her business plan.
‘Revenue minus costs equals profit. That has to be your mantra, Susan.’
She nodded. ‘I’ve thought a lot about it.’
‘OK, so you know that you’ve two kinds of cost?’
Susan, rattled, her voice smaller. ‘Yes.’
John smoothed down his tie, ‘Your start up costs kick in before you sell a single cake.’ He pointed at the screen. ‘Just take two areas, for example: you have to equip your kitchen with a bigger oven and invest in some good publicity to launch your range. You haven’t included these costs yet.’
She rallied. ‘I’ve already found a premises and the kitchen is being installed. I’ve set up an account with a wholesaler. I’m even meeting a design company tomorrow about my new website. There’s no way I’m slow off the mark.’
‘But then why aren’t all these costs here?’
She didn’t respond. John went on prodding, censorious. ‘None of this comes cheap. Where are your figures for all this outlay? And as regards funding, are you relying on the bank to help you, or can you come up with some of the money yourself?’
‘I don’t have the exact figures yet. I know there are grants…’ Her voice trailed away.
‘All well and good, but you won’t stand a chance unless you make credible projections of your sales, for year one and years two and three.’
For the studio session, Susan, in silver lamé – a top I had never seen before – was beginning to slump in her seat. As if pulled by Maggie’s mind, the camera zoomed on to her, the narrowed eyes and tiny smile. Of all the hours of footage generated by The Fixers, this was the shot destined to be shown over and over again.
I decided not to cut away. Let the show go on.
‘Now, your operating costs.’ John was working through the business plan that had taken her hours to update since the recording. He was enjoying the forensic stance, taking his time. ‘There are your ingredients. I see you’ve added some figures. Good. I suggest you try for credit terms for the flour, butter etc.’
‘You’ll have to negotiate. Gas and electricity both cost an arm and a leg.’
Before Susan could answer, John interrupted again: ‘By the way, what are you doing about transport?’
‘That’s sorted. I’m going to use my own car.’ Susan’s little wiggle.
‘Fair enough, but you’ll need to estimate the running costs. And depreciation. Your insurance needs to cover business use. And remember, the County Enterprise Board only wants to hear about profit.’
‘I’m expecting to make ten percent profit.’ Susan’s voice was unusually low.
‘I’ve a feeling you’re plucking that figure out of the air, Susan. Before you can quantify your profit accurately, you’ll have to document the unit price of production, the unit selling price, and what volume of sales you’re expecting. Without a plan’ – he pushed his face almost into hers – ‘there’s no point in even approaching the bank.’
‘There’s no way they won’t go down a bomb,’ she hit back. ‘At the end of the day, people will just love my cupcakes, they’re so pretty, and I can decorate them so many ways, with the sprinkles.’
Good, not so meek, she was showing a bit of pluck, even if it did involve sprinkles. I picked up a shiver of support from the audience. And she deserved it.
We were finished with the picky details. Now Susan was tossed back and forth between Dymphna and John, as they drilled her in how to knock on doors for business, how to negotiate with the Enterprise Board, how to present herself. Then, after the break, Maggie.
‘No, no, no, you first need to check the competition, who else is doing anything similar, and how much are they charging? Who buys their cakes? Why would they switch to cupcakes? What’s your USP?’
Maggie’s stare was flint. As the pause stretched out, Susan’s words dried up altogether. I tingled, everywhere.
‘If you don’t even know what Unique Selling Point means, for God’s sake, how will your funders or customers recognise it?’ Letting rip with Aussie bluntness.
‘I do,’ Susan said, meek again.
‘Why are you so afraid? If you show your fear, you’ll be eaten alive. You have to know your competition or you’ll not get any financial backing. And you do have competition. You’re a small fish in a big pond now. So make the pitch again, and this time, remember what you’ve been told. Your mother isn’t here to applaud you. Let us see if you can keep your nerve. Can do that?’
Maggie switched her stare abruptly: ‘What do you reckon, Morgan? Will Susan’s voice stay steady? Have you run through calming breathing techniques with her? John, are the figures sound? I don’t know if she has given us enough detail about promotion. What do you think?’
I could smell it, over the familiar plastic scent of the studio, Susan’s fear, as she looked towards the audience. Beseeching. Her – and our first arbiters. They assessed, concluded and beyond them, unseen, the viewers held the scales. The audience’s eyes followed the dance: never off Maggie and Susan. No more than mine. All looking very deadpan, but some surely also feeling that tiny soft flame, the excitement. Susan’s face was almost melting under her makeup. She said nothing. The sequence was running away and I didn’t want to rein it in.
‘With a corny business, you yourself can seem corny.’
Maggie did this often, couching criticism as ‘what if someone was to say’, or ‘some might say,’ as if she was merely relaying the doubts of others.
‘As John says, your projections will need to be much more firm and realistic. What’s telling you that you’ll bag the level of orders that you’ve predicted there?’ Maggie jabbed a finger at Susan’s hard-won business plan.
Flummoxed, Susan’s face slipped open as Maggie, losing interest, looked away. Then she leaned forward confidentially.
‘I’ve a concern…’ she paused, ‘that you’re relying too much on vague goodwill and encouragement from perhaps friends and neighbours? People who’ll tell you what you want to hear. I mean, not all the audience feedback on your cakes was positive, was it?’
Dymphna came back in, trying to correct, rebalance, praising Susan’s presentation for the Enterprise Board. I cut away to Susan, small and beaten. I felt it then, the hitch in the groin, unmistakable. The PA cued me to end in 2.5 minutes.
‘What is your biggest problem, Susan?’ asked Padraig, to close the show.
‘I’m not quite sure how to swirl the butter icing.’
I found myself shaking, and then noticed how my hands were locked together, and I didn’t remember doing it.
Still stirred and emptied as I was, the panel debrief proved heavy going.
Maggie, straight in: ‘I’ve huge concerns about Susan. She’s very wobbly, just at the moment when she needs to communicate crisply and comfortably.’
Morgan cut in. ‘Come on, in fairness, Maggie, she’s going regularly to the gym, working really hard.’
‘Well, it doesn’t show.’
John confirmed that she had really done her homework on the figures. ‘And she’s taken note of all the health and safety regs. The inspectors are due to pass her kitchen premises, she’s ordered the bigger oven, and she’s applying for certification. Whatever strings she’s pulled, she’s got everything done very fast.’
‘That’s the boring stuff, who wants to hear it?’ Maggie went on. ‘Don’t go overboard on it. Let me tell you something, sweethearts. Cupcakes are corny. They don’t fit with today’s more sophisticated palate. Maybe there’s a niche for them at kids’ parties, but nowhere else. They’re boring, essentially just pumped up fairy cakes.’
When Morgan protested that Susan had got a very hard time, Maggie reminded him of the premise of The Fixers, that participants had to go through the darkest place on their journey. ‘She’s hitting the wall on her marathon. That’s inevitable, not my doing. And you saw how it gripped the audience.’
‘Poor old Susan, she’s had nothing but wall on this show,’ said Morgan, looking straight at Maggie.
‘I’ve got an appointment in town, and I’m already late, ciao,’ was Maggie’s response. She got up and swanned out.
No one said anything for a long few seconds. I stepped into the silence to deal with a few routine matters. After that, I sought Padraig’s opinion. ‘Susan is a great trouper, very strong, buoyant, now that it’s over.’
With his special connection to the women in the bungalow he would know. So, she was coping OK. I would use most of the footage.
It seemed long, the wait for Maggie to come home. When she did, neither of us even thought of dinner. As she slipped off her shoes, then let her coat fall to the floor, I crossed to catch her. We both knew this programme was perfect. Now we had challenged, stretched our public. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Our pulses matched the steady thrum of the rain on the large windows that gave over the river with its spaced lights and dull sirens.
I woke full of longing and shame, and turned away from Maggie. In the long night some perspective on what we had done hit me. The impact on Susan, her life, how Maggie’s cruelty was a turn-on.
‘You and I don’t have to say things to talk to each other,’ Maggie said, her hand touching my shoulder, a concerned note in her voice.
‘What are we playing at, Maggie? Just showing off?’ I cut in.
‘Ratings, that’s what you want most of all, isn’t it? I thought you were delighted with my performance.’
But as the day progressed, I was both happy and afraid.
Standpoint by Damian O’Carroll
Have any two words become so warped in meaning as ‘Health and Safety’? When applied to food, as, for example, to the new fad of cupcakes (of which more anon), they have lost their inclusive and positive ring, and now dictate a joyless attitude to eating. Food is commended only for being free from an ever-lengthening list of dangerous ingredients, or the risk of side effects. There follows the glum sight of shop assistants at food counters wearing gloves as if handling radioactive material. How often does the word ‘food’ trigger the words ‘allergies’ or ‘intolerance’ which – scarcely heard of until recent decades – now proliferate, and give rise to an industry founded on mistrust of ordinary food, the kind that sustained earlier generations, including during the period of the Emergency, when our plain diet was a factor in our high level of overall health.
Sadly, I had no first hand accounts of what Damian himself ate, and would have particularly liked to know what was served at his eponymous intimate dinners. I doubted if hairy bacon, herrings – or the sturdy Emergency brown bread – ever featured.
We should be fostering a culture of delight and ceremony where food is concerned. Some lapses in hygienic practices in the past do not justify the squeamish reactions of young people, lacking commonsense, so ignorant that they panic at the sight of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ labels, and throw out perfectly edible food.
We also hear how cupcakes, unknown on this side of the Atlantic till a year or so ago, bring back childhood memories. No one who was reared in this country could possibly have childhood memories of these insipid, yet gaudy confections. What is being sold is nostalgia, not for our own childhoods, but for a bogus American one. The cakes are sickly and dry. They manage somehow to be at once babyish, and gross, in the unlovely term ‘super sized.’
Queasy, those moments, when Damian and myself advanced towards each other, as if an Irish set formation, or a barn dance had pitched us to swing together, with the risk that he might be morphing into a near ally. Better to head away along the moving line.
Her window looks on to the front. You can see through the shrubbery – still damp at this early time – as far as the gate. She’ll be through that gate before anyone is up, speeding down the road towards the roundabout, then out on to the exit for the city centre. The shittiest night’s sleep, full of little flashes from the last programme, how Maggie and John grilled her, how she didn’t get to explain properly about her cupcakes. And Cathal, the rat, telling the world that her cooking gave him an ulcer. No one in the bungalow dared mention it, though she knew they had heard it on the radio too. No breakfast, just take a smoothie with her for later. She couldn’t face lingering in the kitchen, not with the smells of Jacqueline’s corner-shop noodles. Too many things are totally different, this morning. She thinks Padraig gave her a long hug after the end of the show, everything is a blur. His big face right up in front of hers. And she nodded when he comforted her.
‘Susan, love, no one really takes that much notice of TV shows, no one remembers any of it for long.’
At the same time, he kept agreeing with the opposite point, when Breege told her that she came across well. Of course she didn’t. Maggie made her look foolish in front of the audience and the viewers all over the country. They’ll turn against her now. Who would eat a cupcake baked by a loser?
Really, Eoin and the rest of them only care about the show, the viewing figures. It’s nothing but talk. They don’t give a shit about her. Well, they will, after today. Things will be different, after today.
Her head is packed, but she’s able for it. Nothing can hold her back now. She knows the way that opens ahead. This morning, she is hitting back. And she will look her best, especially delighted with her platform wedges, even though they’ll be a bitch to drive in.
Feet stretched out on the bed, little rolls of cotton wool between her toes, carefully smoothing the brush on the side of the nail varnish bottle, taking care that her toenails are evenly covered. Her fingernails are already dry, in the same shade of frosted pink: Fondant.
The traffic’s bloody awful, but Susan cannot, just cannot, be late. That’ll make a bad impression, not come across as businesslike. Hurrying, not checking out exactly how to get to the design place. She has to boot it, cuts in from the inside, and overtakes several times on Macken Street. All these stupid slow drivers, it’s brill to pass them out. Cathal would have freaked if he had seen her driving like that.
This is far down from O’Connell Bridge. She doesn’t know a thing about this area, always thought of it as rough, all industrial or half falling down. But these days, it’s a new scene. All tall glass towers, cafes and delis. And the Point Theatre. The edge of the city is much further away than it used to be. People in big cars now head down streets that used to come up in headlines about crime. Tracey’s country. Turning on to the quay, she thinks she knows where the designers’ place is. GraphoLab. Maybe they think it sounds better than ‘design studio’. But now, she can’t see if she has come too far. It’s bumper to bumper: not even crawling. A tap on her window. A man in a dark coat, with an old fashioned quiff, crossing through traffic, smiles in at her. He gives her a thumbs up. She checks quickly that her bag is out of reach, on the floor. His wide mouth is very wet, shapes words, ‘I saw you on the telly.’
She recoils. She remembers Breege talking about Maggie’s brand new apartment, high-rise, down on one of the quays. Breege is always in the know about where people live, and what part of the country their family came from. Typical of smart-ass Maggie to have a place on the tenth floor, to be one of the first to move in. They say an apartment here costs an arm and a leg. Susan is driving straight into Maggieland. That’s spooking her, more than if it was still Traceyland. Maggie, such a cow. She even seemed to be putting Dymphna, Morgan and John down, bossy and full of herself. Maggie is a bully and Susan hates her. Eoin, I hate you even more because you were in charge, you could have stopped her, but again, you were thinking only of the show.
The glass façades are looking at her. Everyone knows she blew it. Left out most of the good stuff she meant to say. Lost in all the jargon, no answers for Maggie or John, phased by what Cathal had said on the radio. The audience will surely turn against her. She used to admire Maggie’s style, even though it scary when she puts on that look but, surely, an expert with so much experience, should really help her with the business start-up. The Fixers was all about that, wasn’t it? She’d like to expose the show, ruin it, let the public know how nasty and mean Maggie was.
Now the traffic is lighter. The quay is hung with bunting, yellow and white, a bit tatty. It’s for the Community Festival. The little girls will be practising twirling their batons, leading the community groups, the sports clubs. They probably still have Marian processions here, like when Susan was little, the kids in their Communion outfits, the hymns coming out of the loudspeakers, all the girls carrying flowers, some holding the end of a ribbon, and Susan sure that her dress was the nicest.
Her bag is on the floor. She wouldn’t leave anything on the front seat, not in this area. Everyone talks about the bag snatchers that lie in wait at traffic lights for women drivers, break the side window, and when the woman is shocked, maybe cut by the glass, reach in and grab their handbag. She needs to check out the directions to GraphoLab. She leans sideways to pick up the brochure with the little map. Her sunglasses fall forward, and she reaches to push them back to the top of her head. She has lost her balance, but the car is still travelling forward.
Over the days, after programme five – outcry. Many viewers were dismayed that Maggie was picking on Susan, that the show was spilling over the bounds of good taste. But others argued that, on the contrary, Susan must have known what she was letting herself in for, that she was getting no more than she could expect. Reactions that stemmed from assumptions about Susan. In the curious moral metrics of the show, for Maggie to fillet a gay woman, an ex-nun or, even a former delinquent would have seemed unsporting, but Susan – as I had insisted from the start – belonged to the mainstream. Many correspondents mentioned ‘tough love’.
I found myself rerunning a lot of arguments about how to apply common standards to four such different individuals. Turning on Jacqueline could have seemed to stem from prejudice. Tracey was working class, so deserving of benign treatment. Breege was unexpectedly well defended. But Susan had always underlined her difference from them, given the message that she lived on a different plane, didn’t belong to a hard-done-by social group, had enough funds from the guilt-ridden separation that Cathal had agreed to to start a new life. As Damian might have said, quoting Nietzsche, ‘What does not kill us makes us strong,’ and Susan’s slighter experience of adversity compared with the other three participants could have robbed her of a source of strength.
Cupcakes were all over the airways:
Where did they come from, all of a sudden?
Where have you been? On the planet Mars? Did Sex and the City drift past you?
No more than Maggie, I don’t get the point of cupcakes.
I love cup cakes: they’re fun and youthful.
Cupcakes are sickly and dull. Polyfilla has more flavour.
What was wrong with our mothers’ butterfly buns?
They look so pretty, all glossy.
Another way to rip the public off.
I went through my brutal editing schedule with bad puns rattling through my head: about how sticky the session with Susan had been. I couldn’t ditch thoughts about how to keep her sweet, to take away any nasty taste, to cook up a new story, or to whip up a treat for the end of the show. But deep down the only thing that really mattered was getting the next programme – our last one – right. A successful finale would ensure my future.
Transformed by Dymphna’s skills and drilled in self-presentation, the participants were to stage a fashion parade in a country house setting. First a quick reprise of the very first programme, to remind us, and them, of the starting point for their transformation, the state before Morgan had begun pushing them to tone and trim. They would walk from the house and across the lawn to be greeted by a gasp of stunned surprise, then a wild chorus of enthusiasm from their families and friends, who would have been already primed by a warm-up talk from Padraig. I was imagining Susan’s kids: ‘Mum, you’re beautiful,’ and her women friends: ‘We like the new Susan,’ and Jacqueline’s parents: ‘So smart.’ Breege’s brothers- and sisters-in-law would register her graceful figure, hardly noticed till then, and maybe Jimmy would turn up to salute a new, more grown-up Tracey.
We had arranged for designers to send in the first set of their summer season range to choose from. Dymphna was working out how she could keep some of the floral dresses and gypsy tops – that so delighted Susan – in her own size. Though Dymphna’s philosophy was to defy what she called ‘fashion tyranny’ and to champion the women to ‘go with your own look’ this had limits. We were having problems finding stuff she knew would look good on Breege, who didn’t feel well dressed without what she called ‘good rig-outs’. These meant muddy vegetation colours and hard looking shoes. To ensure that she’d spend her full allowance, Dymphna removed the price labels. Jacqueline also needed to drop that low budget look, and as a minimum, to go for better-cut denim. Susan loved lengthy trying on sessions, and was already building up numerous ensembles, combining cowboy boots, platform shoes, leggings, floaty skirts and brightly coloured tops.
Dymphna was almost singing.
‘We’ll be highlighting their best qualities. Breege’s skin is so clear for her age, Jacqueline has an amazing full-lipped mouth, Susan’s hair is really thick and bouncy, and as for Tracey, those cat eyes!’
Coming to after sleeping especially deeply, I leaned over Maggie, and reached to see what she was reading. The Handmaid’s Tale.
‘Well hello, I thought you’d never wake up.’
‘Not at all, I’m bright as a lark.’
‘And on only ten hours’ sleep, amazing. And inventive, too. Most of us say either up with the lark or bright as a button.’
‘About the show…’
‘What show would that be?’
I laughed at what had become our usual exchange. ‘One programme to go, and we haven’t been found out yet. Next up, the final one. They parade, they pledge. That should be fairly straightforward.’
Maggie turned, giggled near my ear, ‘It’s not over yet, my dear. Dymphna is a silly airhead, but trust me, I told you already, grooming and dress are dynamite conversation topics. And after they parade their new looks, I’ll be quizzing them. How will they embed this learning and bring it forward into their future lives?’
‘Still, it’s a run for home. Just hold a steady course, let’s bring it safely to port. I thought nothing could make me love you more, but you’ve excelled yourself, what a pro. You know the last programme got huge viewer numbers. Totally unprecedented.’
I loved how she didn’t dwell on compliments, or on the past.
‘I thought you wanted turbulence up to the end.’
‘My instinct is to leave the audience with a happier, calmer lead in the final programme. I particularly want Susan to come out strong.’
Maggie started hunting through her book. ‘I’ve lost my place, thanks to you. But, of course if you say so, sweetheart, you’re the skipper.’ She shrugged back into a nest of pillows. ‘You go on. I’ll finish this chapter, then I’ve errands in town. I’ll see you later at the station.’
‘Are you going running after work?’
‘Sure. It looks as if we’ll have two fine days in a row. Amazing. Is this still Dublin?’
I hugged her especially hard, then got up to shower.
By the time I managed to return Padraig’s call, he had already left three messages, each a few minutes apart.
‘Hi, Padraig, you caught me in the shower. What’s going on? We’re due to meet at two aren’t we?’
‘Susan left early this morning,’ he told me. ‘Tiptoed out, no breakfast. No one has seen her since. She’s not answering her phone.’
Trust Susan, what a pain. But Padraig should have known her form. I’d heard many complaints about how she kept the others waiting. When they were already in the car, she’d insist on going back to collect a scarf or a different handbag. The solo run, that was her style.
‘Padraig, I’m sure she’ll get back to you. Maybe she wanted some time out.’
I cringed at how I was slipping into Susan-speak. If it wasn’t ‘me time’ she wanted, it would be ‘quality time’ or else ‘time out.’
‘The women are adults,’ I said. ‘We don’t have to tail them twenty-four seven.’
It was getting worse. I wanted to ring off before I uttered any more Susan phrases.
But Padraig insisted that I listen. He was talking faster and more to the point than I’d ever heard before. I started to argue, playing down his concern. He was exaggerating, getting into a needless flap.
‘Padraig, she has lots to do just now. She’s probably gone to meet her focus group. Or sign off on the brochures. You know Susan, she won’t thank you for being a fusspot, tracking her all over the place.’
‘No, I spoke to the marketing guys at GraphoLab. She didn’t turn up for her appointment. I’ve asked the other girls and we’ve looked in her room. No one has seen her or heard from her since last night. And she was giving such good vibes. She hardly stopped working since our last programme.’
Our last programme. A nerve jumped in my right eyeball. As if caught by a flashbulb, I saw Maggie’s narrow look and Susan undone.
I turned back to crafting applications for new jobs. Now that The Fixers was a hot hit, and my CV was in the system, I was flying. I was also hatching a new, still embryonic, TV programme.
Padraig’s next call came right after lunch.
‘Eoin, where are you?’
‘Oh, hi, Padraig, I’m in the car, on my way to the office.’
‘Eoin, pull over as soon as you can. I’ll stay on the line.’
I felt as if a shadow had passed, though there was no cloud. I swung into the car park on the seafront in Sandymount and stopped beside a bed of thin winter foliage. Very slowly, I reached for my phone.
‘Bad news, Eoin. I told you we couldn’t locate Susan. Well, she has been found, but she’s dead.’
Of course I said something stupid.
‘Are you sure?’
I fixed my eyes on a stretch of ribbed sand, where a dog was trying to drag a length of soiled cloth free by chugging it with his teeth.
‘It’s not about me being sure. The emergency services worked on her at the spot, but there was no way she was going to make it.’
‘The spot,’ I repeated. The word sounded very strange, I could think only of a beauty spot or a picnic spot.
Then I asked, ‘What happened? Why is she dead?’
‘I don’t know that, but they think she drove against a kerb on the quay and went into the river. The guards advised that we send the girls along to the studio as usual. Then the specialist team went into Susan’s room and started checking around.’
I saw them, the family photos lined up on every surface, smiling into the air. The dog was still busy, braced on his front legs, twisting his head, loosening the heavy damp cloth.
‘Checking… what for?’
I needed him to fill me in about everything.
‘Evidence of her state of mind this morning. And over the last few days.’
The seagulls walked delicately, intent on their own affairs. When I said nothing it spurred Padraig into volunteering more.
‘The team at the hospital said she wasn’t dead for long.’
‘Padraig, it must have been an accident.’
Nothing else was possible. Not for Susan. His answer came so quickly it was worse then if he had hesitated.
‘They’re not saying.’
‘And the other women?’
‘They’re already at the TV station. All they’ve been told is that she’s missing, and that there’s a concern.’
‘That’s telling them quite a lot.’
The dog’s owner called him, and after a final tug at the cloth that now showed the diagonal white line of a y-front, he went racing off towards her.
‘Padraig, I’m heading to the station, now. Can you come immediately?’
‘The guards are still here at the bungalow. I was the last to talk to her, so they need to interview me.’
Quite absurdly, I was miffed. At that moment, Padraig was the one that mattered, not me.
‘Of course, of course.’
Just before he rang off, I said, ‘I need you here, Padraig.’ Then, ‘Well done.’
I sounded like an amateur actor in a corny play. I was mouthing leader-like sounds, as if I had a plan, when I was possessed by an irreverent, no, a sick, image: a curvy little cartoon car travelling for a distance through the air, quite straight, till the occupant, Tom or Jerry, realises he has gone off the cliff, looks down and only then falls. They reappear in the next reel. But Susan wouldn’t. Yesterday, she was around, in all her special peskiness. Today she was gone. How could that happen? She now knew something I didn’t know. I thought of Cathal, and her kids, and realised how much she had made them come alive for us all. I was surprised to feel so big a pang.
I sat for a while in the car park while the tide turned, and the water departed to the extent that it ever does, over that sand. When my phone rang again, I knew who was calling.
‘Listen Maggie, have you heard? I’m in shock.’
‘Yes. Me too. Poor Susan.’
I filled the silence. ‘We need to work out our next steps.’
She cut across my musings. ‘I’ve already started to do just that. Eoin, this is the day to summon your leadership skills. The show and your colleagues need you. I’ve arranged to call into the police station. Then I’d best lie low for a while.’
‘Lie low? How? Where?’
‘There’s a lot of water in the North Atlantic, my favourite ocean.’
‘Maggie, don’t even think of taking a boat out. I’ve heard enough about bloody water for one day.’
‘I won’t think about it, I’ll do it,’ she said. ‘But, my darling, that’s not the ‘it’ you’re afraid of.
‘I need you around today.’
‘No, you don’t. By the time you reach the station the system will already be moving to isolate and expel the foreign body, the toxin, The Fixers. That means the bungalow three, and even more so, the panel three. And most of all, the fourth, myself, always the outlier. I’m the psychologist, for God’s sake. I really want us to be together, but for both our sakes, we have to stay away from each other till things stop wobbling.’
I hadn’t wanted her to hear me wail, the only sound that rose inside me. She was right, and in any case, she was stubborn.
As if we were still back in the innocence of that morning, I left her with pleading: ‘Stay in touch. And please don’t take chances at sea.’
Talking on the carphone system, jabbing at buttons, I was still trying to drive, until I started to get ugly looks from other drivers and furious hooting at my erratic progress. As the messages kept coming, I pulled over each time, my thoughts churning back and forth.
Maggie’s self-characterisation – as an outlier applied to me also. Padraig is an institution. He belongs. He also will be key to any future inquiry. So I wanted him around while I figured out – hard to say what exactly – damage limitation? Of the show? Of Maggie and myself, our efforts to salvage, to shape? I had a sense Padraig wouldn’t be tainted. Also, his man-in-the-street reaction, his ponderous speech, could hold me, earth my spinning thoughts. Messages piled up as I drove. One from Andrea told me how a journalist waiting in A&E for attention to a strained ligament got a tip-off from an orderly about Susan and rang his paper.
‘I’ve been called to the fourth floor. Brendan is freaking out, the story is running away from us before Corporate Communications have the chance to create a narrative,’ she said.
It was after that call that I decided to contact Gerard. His area is conveyancing, but he could point me towards a good litigation lawyer. Just in case. I reached back to the picnic in Djouce wood and my taking command. Did it exist, a Heimlich manoeuvre that could save this day? And did I know it?
During the rest of the dash to the station, for a change, all the lights were green. The world moving me quickly towards a reckoning.
Around the station car park, the trees moaned and swung in a rising wind. I saw Breege, Tracey and Jacqueline in front of the building. The group lopsided. No Susan. They were looking towards the car park. Who were they watching for? Not me, or Maggie, but for Padraig, and when they saw him they almost ran to cluster like chicks around their mother hen. I was grateful to Padraig for not saying much or expecting me to say anything. Inside the building, Morgan and Dymphna were holding on to each other, and turned to sweep me into their hugs. Good to have someone to hold. John shook my hand and gripped my shoulder, as if we were already at a funeral, while he said, over and over, ‘She had everything ahead of her, a great business idea, and she was a true lady.’ Two maimed groups. At that moment, I belonged with neither, but tried to connect with both. Negotiating quarantine.
Everywhere, little groups huddled, crying. Those who had worked with Susan, but also many who barely knew her. Everyone so totally themselves, but, somehow their best selves. I gave a lead only in backing Jacqueline’s suggestion that we all walk around the car park together. After we had done a few laps, grouped in various combinations, Breege urged us to say a little private prayer. We happened to be passing, just then, a willow tree, and spontaneously, paused. The tree, the spot, were, mysteriously and almost immediately transformed into a Susan shrine. Here, over the following days, people came to pause, to commune, to touch its catkins.
And Maggie? Morgan and John were acting as if her absence was a shameful betrayal.
‘It’s like waiting your turn for confession,’ I said, as one by one we were summoned to interview with the guards. The reception staff had always been my pals and informants. I could count on them to fill me in on gossip. But they looked blank at my joke.
I could still rely on Andrea. ‘On the fourth floor they need heads, important heads. They’re all talking about which senior manager will have to walk the plank,’ she said. ‘I already have.’
‘You’re mixing your metaphors, but I get you. I’m sorry you’re caught up in the wash. You had no control, so you’ve no responsibility for any of it.’
She laughed. ‘Much any of them care. Right now, The Fixers is poison, full stop.’
Summoned to the unfamiliar fourth floor, where the blue flooring gave way to a more elegant grey, I found Brendan and his boss, Peter, who were acting out their worst selves.
‘Today’s evening edition,’ said Peter, indicating a short paragraph in a paper to the effect that a car had been recovered from the Liffey and it was believed that the driver was a woman.
I read it twice and stopped myself just in time before saying what came to mind; why are they called evening editions when they come out at lunchtime?
‘The legal department advises that we handle this at a corporate level,’ said Peter.
They didn’t say where I fitted in, though I was ready to try to steady and rally the little fixers troupe. Already fractured, it would soon disintegrate in a spate of layoffs. They were checking on contracts. The intention was to let the participants and the panel members go.
When he spoke for the first time, Brendan’s voice was grim. ‘We are preparing a statement of sincere sorrow about Susan’s loss, how deeply this tragedy is felt by all involved in the station and on The Fixers.’
Peter intervened. ‘On no account use the word ‘tragedy’. That could land us in deep shit. If someone dies tragically, it is code for suicide.’
Brendan looked angry at being ticked off in front of me.
Peter continued, ‘As you appreciate, this is a holding move. The priorities now are to set up a response desk, to field calls from the media and the public. We have to release all the transcripts and tapes of the show to the guards and to the legal bods, we all have to be available on an ongoing basis.’
‘Release’ triggered a shaky feeling in me. Letting stuff loose spelled danger. Programme five, only just aired, but feeling as if it was years ago. A narrative of doom slowly building, more coherent than the one we were trying to put across. A new test: the construction of a counter-story. Out of what?
‘Your team’ – Brendan addressed me with distaste – ‘is absolutely forbidden to talk to any reporters or discuss any of this in depth, even with their own families. We can’t be specific’ – I knew very well what we couldn’t be specific about – ‘till the guards have concluded their inquiries. As we speak, they’re seeking statements from everyone involved.’
‘However’ – and here he looked in the direction of Peter – ‘it goes without saying, we’ll be cancelling the entire show.’
‘There is just one programme to go,’ I protested, unnecessarily, even pointlessly. I quickly backtracked and added, ‘Was.’
Thinking of the two maimed troupes, I asked, ‘When will the fixers’ – another correction – ‘the panellists and the participants, be informed?’
Another exchange of looks. Neither of these managers had put a foot wrong to date. Their careers – and they had been headhunted for this new station – a series of calculated manoeuvres, always a weather-eye out, to read life at court. And their timing – holding back, moving sideways, then forward. Now this misstep risked totally scuppering their careers. I felt pity only for my plucky little champion, Andrea, already demoted, banished to the wasteland of the breakfast show.
‘Over the next few days.’ Peter said.
That was probably the last piece of information I would get. I was still clinging to an instinctive crazy notion that we could honour Susan by putting on another, final, programme, leaving the participants to speak in their own right, paying tribute to her by their emotional reminiscences and their renewed determination to succeed.
‘It could happen on TV, a leave-taking, a good bye to Susan? Cathartic, for all involved. For the public, also.’
Peter wouldn’t touch it. ‘There’s a remote possibility that we’ll bring them back together for a memorial in a year’s time. Mind you, that would still be risky.’
That was all he would concede.
‘HR has confirmed they can stay in the bungalow, if they want to, till the end of the month.’
In the event, none actually wanted to stay longer than a fortnight.
‘Of course, they will have to sign indemnifications.’
‘We’ll offer them counselling.’
I felt that Peter and Brendan were slowly coming out of numbness, recalling the elements of an established procedure, the dance of defensiveness.
The outtake material was embargoed for the enquiry. Those reels were the closest we had to a documentary about the show itself. Another irony, that a show regarded as voyeuristic, cannibalising every moment of the participants’ experience, actually had gaps in the record of its most important moments, like Susan’s reaction to the business segment. By a mischance, Padraig’s discussion with her had not been retained. We had only his report that she looked and sounded fine.
The remaining bungalow three and panel three were in the canteen. Now that everything was different, it seemed natural to beckon them to move close, bring us all together. It was the fixers who moved tables. John humbled, Morgan tense. Only Dymphna spoke.
‘Susan was so bubbly, always on for a shopping trip. She loved clothes.’
‘We were the last to see her,’ said Jacqueline. Marking how the bungalow three were privileged, how they had much to tell. But they hadn’t yet wakened, moved from Fixerland. Still in the spell. They saw us close-up now – we, the makers, all at once more vulnerable, diminished, yet they still deferred to the show, to its rites, the humiliation, tough but warranted, and were still entranced, persuaded of our omnipotence.
‘I knocked on her door to see if she was OK,’ said Breege. ‘She called out that she was going to head straight to bed.’
‘She was high as a ki’ in the car on the way home,’ said Tracey. ‘After the grillin’. But Padraig’s little chat musta’ helped her. They were great pals.’
Looking squarely at me, Jacqueline suddenly asked what was the viewer reaction to the programme. ‘That last bit, with Maggie.’ Like a snap of the fingers, stepping outside of Fixerland, speaking of the contrivance, the shaping.
‘Yes, it got huge ratings,’ I said. The wrong words. Then, once Maggie’s name fell out, the power distance – as Maggie called it – was abolished. A reversal completed.
Into reproach mode: about how the other women hadn’t paid enough attention to her. This we all do about a person who has died. But Susan hadn’t just died, she had died suddenly – and she hadn’t just died suddenly, her death might have been a choice. I didn’t think it was. She loved herself too much. Or was I just afraid to harbour that thought? Now that I couldn’t be nice to her any more, I wanted to be. Now that I couldn’t ask her what she had felt or meant, I longed to do just that. And she might well have wondered ‘How come I didn’t get all this notice when I was around?’
In advance of a big item in the next day’s papers, a report was needed for that evening’s TV bulletin. The broadcaster, in the business of transmitting and managing news, seemed flat-footed when pitched abruptly into becoming itself a sensational story. Other TV companies and the print media seized their moment to lead the charge. Once it was announced that The Fixers was cancelled, two streams of rumours, from the hospital and the station, started to join up. On the Teatime News stills of the quayside, the bungalow, the red and white incident tape strung between poles. As the day went on, news flew around the city and the spot on the quays became a target of pilgrimage for people with bunches of flowers in cellophane. Teddy bears, also – oddly appropriate to the kind of adult Susan had been. And cakes, buns and cupcakes of every sort were placed there too. Haphazardly made and decorated. Wrapped in cellophane like the flowers. In death she had triggered a cupcake craze. When the pilgrams departed at dusk, and before they returned in the morning, the seagulls tore them apart.
Every detail of Susan’s short period in the spotlight was picked over. Amid cries to allow her stricken family peace to grieve, the press rustled up every scrap of hearsay and factoid. The schools that her children attended, the house she had lived in with them, the village in Leitrim to which her father had retired – all were shown repeatedly, alternating with fixed shots of the bungalow (marked with crime tape, where guards in white overalls moved in and out, past the one in uniform standing watch at the door) as if all these blank façades could yield up an answer, if only we all kept looking.
Nothing in Susan’s last day had seemed worthy of special mention at the time , but Padraig took care to mention everything, anyway. Blabbermouth he may have been, but I was developing a new appreciation of his communication skills. Stepping into the vacuum, he was becoming the nearest thing we had to an authority on Susan’s state of mind. Her meeting with a marketing company, GraphoLab, was an important step for her ‘Big time. Planning a marketing campaign.’
Padraig’s line, ‘Maybe that was stressing her out’, was a useful code. It fudged the issue of her treatment on the show. But he didn’t sound convinced. In reality, undercutting his own account of her last day, he left his hearers to look elsewhere. What he left unspoken was what everyone was now thinking: how she, a woman recently dumped by her husband, had been devastated in public. Padraig recalled that Susan had made a particularly large number of calls on her mobile the day before, that she had booked two hairdos and a facial during that week. But there were many contradictions. As she came out of her interview with the guards, Dymphna fretted that nothing in Susan’s last day stood out for her. The bungalow three later regretted letting Susan go to bed so early after the programme. That was about all that anyone had to contribute. I was bitter that for a show that relied on charting minute reactions, parsing the meaning of what we’d seen, we had only few paltry comments.
Susan’s brother Kevin – whose accent was uncannily like hers – appeared briefly on the late news, speaking for the broken-hearted family, their desire, above all, to be left to grieve in private. Pointedly, he mentioned how supportive the public (‘ordinary people, who had taken Susan to their hearts’) had been. He made no reference to the station or the show.
I had often heard that tasteless jokes sustain emergency service staff, like the rescue crews on the Air India crash, or surgical teams. But if any were flying around The Fixers enquiry, we didn’t hear them. Everyone drank loads of coffee; not at coffee breaks, there was nothing to break from, but in the course of endless huddles. The kitchen was now our only base in the bungalow, and we all knew it was ours only, for the vigil. Once Susan was buried, we would no longer have any business being there. After my interview with the guards, I asked Tracey if she had a cigarette. She lit one for me, then for herself.
‘Don’t tell Morgan I’m still on them.’
One puff and I tossed it away.
We couldn’t let each other out of our sight. Yet our different readings were prising us apart. No one could tell how much the others were in the know about developments. Mistrust seeped amongst us. John and Morgan were broadly anti-Maggie, though this stance caused John some discomfort, and needed gyrations to maintain, since on the programme he too had grilled Susan, only later offering a tepid defence of her efficiency. Events had given Morgan more licence.
‘Sometimes, you don’t know where you stand, it’s not like dealing with one of our own. At the end of the day, what did any of the rest of us know’ – he looked at me – ‘about Maggie’s background or qualifications?’
If she had been there, I believe Maggie would have deflected his spite, but she wasn’t there, and it was beyond me, just then.
I moved between the two groups, and their two different atmospheres. With the panel, I was stung into defending Maggie. With the bungalow three, hooked by sorrow for Susan. Unlike the authorised version, the spoken story was never firmly pinned down. It remained in flux and by an unwritten resolve, everyone was opting to keep it that way. I was terrified that Maggie had put to sea. Water: depth, darkness, loss. Exasperated, also. She had left me without her cunning.
Susan had always craved more publicity than The Fixers brought her. She had it at last, in the hot breath of headlines: Death Plunge of Tragic Susan, Mystery of Susan’s Last Hours, Maggie’s Shame, Flight of Disgraced Maggie, Public’s Wrath at Fixers Torment, The Witch of Oz, Where is Maggie?
I would have liked to know the answer to that. There were many false sightings of her all over the West of Ireland. But I fancied that she was sipping a Campari in some bar on the south coast, where the fanfare before the TV news could stop conversation amongst garrulous pint drinkers, especially today when the country was, for a moment, beating as with one heart.
And the phone-ins:
You were ‘the little woman’, a bit bland, but giving your all to the show.
Susan, I was rooting for you from the start.
My heart is broken for that girl. I’ve been crying all week.
The Fixers show is a disgrace.
Leaving the station on the evening of Susan’s removal – a ceremony from which we were all banned – I felt Tracey link her arm through mine, and slip her small hand into my jacket pocket. I turned in surprise, but as she moved away, she gave me a broad wink. As soon as I’d said goodbye with the rueful look that we all had for each other at that time, I pulled out the note she had left me, by a kind of reverse pick pocketing. In a childish hand, it gave me a radio signal number for the boat Maggie had hired, and the instruction to use a phone other than my own.
I borrowed Tracey’s, dialled the number. The strange discipline of having to say ‘over’ at the end of each sentence chopped our communication into artificial segments. A strange echo, a whooshing sound, behind her words.
‘Maggie how come you’ve taken so long to make contact? I was afraid when I heard “boat”.’
‘I’m fine, thanks, and don’t worry, sweetheart, I won’t be doing any plunges. My old sailing haunts seemed like the best place to lurk.’
I was edgy. ‘What’s with the conspiratorial messages?’
‘I contacted Tracey, I trusted her. For all I knew, your phone is being tapped.’
‘Go on talking. I want to hear the sound of your voice.’
‘Me too, love.’
‘Come back to land,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid of all the sounds I’m hearing in the background’. I couldn’t escape images of a hole in the hull, a force 7 gale, or a stuttering engine.
‘I’m nearly ready, I need just a few more days by myself. At the end of the week, I’ll be picking up some stuff in the apartment, and coming back to you.’
That night, I got maggoty drunk for the first time in years. But in the morning, my feelings about Maggie were no less tangled, and the prospect of seeing her filled me with dread and longing.
Standpoint by Damian O’Carroll
At this strange time, it behoves us to heed the words of Wilde, when he reminds us that where there is sorrow there is sacred ground. The public and media (now increasingly fused with each other) have reacted to the Fixers tragedy not by tiptoeing, but by trampling. Otherwise intelligent people are lining up to echo, even to pander to, the very elements that precipitated the tragedy. More of the same: more fame sickness, compounded of self-love and confusion. A complex story that needs thoughtful debate collapses into one easy collective sob. We are witnessing what an ancient writer describes: how people go mad in herds, and recover sanity only one by one. And slowly.
‘More of the same’ brings baneful consequences. An ill-understood event is being further distorted by superfluous explanations or mere mood music. We weep too easily, and for the wrong reasons. How people feel overbalances what they think. Whatever the circumstances of her death, Mrs Susan Reynolds suffered by her involvement in a vulgar and slipshod media event. Bad enough. But, in addition, a loud and public parade of grief by many who never knew her compounds the vulgarity. We hear that for the first time, children witness their parents break down in front of them. Can we still recognise the country we had, till just a short while ago?
Some commentators suggest that this mass emote is insincere. I disagree. Whatever it is that people feel, they really feel it and that is the worrying part. We seem to be outdoing each other in showing concern, insisting only that it be sincere: ‘Yes, you care, but do you really care?’ Not an experience, but a pretext to talk about it. The cure is beginning to sound worse than the disease: an epidemic of counselling, talk that can go on for ever.
When she was being goaded by the complacent cruelty of Miss Vernon, few there were to defend Mrs Reynolds. Since her death, the same fickle opinion has pitched her into sainthood. The celebrity martyr wears two contradictory faces, the contradiction that lay at the heart of the programme. Mrs Reynolds was lifted above us by being on TV, yet she was on TV in the first place precisely because she was just one of us. Her claim on our attention stemmed from her inadequacies.
I am urging not more of the same, but the opposite. Firstly, let us show (if we still know how to) the dignity that was lacking in the entire Fixers debacle, by keeping a decent silence and distance from the Reynolds family. Some may argue that this lady voluntarily surrendered her privacy. All the more reason to spare her family the same fate. Better to reach into the great treasury of writings on the theme of lachryma rerum, the tears of things, rather than push ourselves centre stage, and persist with parroting our regret and guilt. Secondly, let us avoid short cuts in extracting meaning from these events. We need to look without flinching at the ugly voyeurism, incompatible with our own Irish culture, and that, notwithstanding all that has happened, still needs to be analysed. Maybe in due course, a sifting of meaning, a robust debate should follow. We need to be ready to look at our own image in the mirror. This unfortunate lady’s fate may yet serve as a warning, still come in time for us to turn back to sounder and saner thinking.
That was Damian’s answer to every problem: turn back to an earlier time. But his editor recognised how powerful this column was, how it resonated, and made the unprecedented decision to publish it on the front page. Apparently, Damian had, some two years back, described suicide as a regrettable, even unacceptable, way out of difficulties that could always be borne. Some readers remembered these comments, and he was challenged. Was he now singing a different tune? He responded with silence.
Damian was aware of what everyone in the media believed but no one was saying in public: that Susan’s death was most probably not an accident. She was known to be an enthusiastic and skilled driver. Though it was February, the light was good at that hour, and whilst the kerb was not protected, it was certainly well marked with warning signs.
The inquest later settled matters with an open verdict of death by misadventure. A very Irish outcome, but the rumours continued to diverge. And the blame. The City Council had already come in for criticism about the unprotected stretch of quay, and they immediately promised to fast-track that part of their plan for the renewal of the quays.
One can go back to one’s own home after a year’s absence and, immediately the door closes, it is as if one has never been away, or, like me on that day, one can go back after a few hours, and everything is so changed that one is a stranger.
The morning of Susan’s funeral – how strange even to form those words – I spent unshaven, hunched in a bathrobe, in front of the TV. All Irish channels carried, over and over, a shot of cars swishing through the gate of the cemetery, that cemetery from which the press were excluded by security men hired by her husband Cathal. He had issued explicit instructions that no one from the station, let alone from The Fixers, was to make any contact with him or his family. The huge crowds who gathered outside the church saw and heard the service relayed on screens. Two of Susan’s women friends, Fiona and Leanne, read the lessons and Kevin spoke of her commitment to home and children. He repeated how the wave of love and sympathy from the public had moved and sustained Cathal, Conor and Ciara at this time. To the sound of a soprano singing Ag Críost An Síol, the coffin was carried from the church by Susan’s husband, son and brother with three in-laws, and Ciara touched the glistening wood before it was slid into the hearse. One long-focus lens shot was flashed everywhere: the stricken man, an arm around each of his children’s shoulders, as all three leaned into the gash of grave that spread at their feet. In a summer of unvarying grey skies the day was bright and soft. Sunlight slanted through the yew trees. Susan was welcomed back home to her original world, the one she had been trying to escape.
The station initially issued a tight lawyer-approved statement expressing regrets, promising an internal enquiry and insisting that a new and more comprehensive code of conduct would apply to any future shows of the kind. Though the broadcaster was indemnified, it would have to accept it had many lessons to learn for the future. In the short term, much stricter vetting, more control of presenters’ practice, in particular, would be immediately implemented. I was to be paid till my contract was up, but was on no account to come into the station. The panellists met a harsher fate. Maggie was let go, together with Morgan, John and Dymphna. The participants had signed a non-disclosure clause, so they could not make any comment on the show. The slot in the schedule was being filled by a reheat of a successful three-part drama, made during the station’s first year.
I decided to show my face that evening in a bar favoured by colleagues. Avoidance would make it harder in future. The room didn’t exactly spring apart, like the Red Sea in the Bible, but a wave of forced smiling ran everywhere. Some, (women mainly), made a parade of crossing to speak to me, of shifting place pointedly to make room for me. Faces fixed. And over and over, the question, ‘But how are you?’ Huge emphasis on the last word, eyes stretched wide in concern. With others, (men, mainly), there was a lot of waving across the room and – if closer contact became unavoidable – gripping of my shoulder or hands, up to the point where the conversation turned to the sticky subject: ‘that appalling woman’ – as if we were all on the same side, as if we were all victims of Maggie’s manoeuvres.
Within a few weeks, though, my colleagues started giving me the slip and, if they couldn’t, spoke in strained tones and in platitudes, with frequent lapses in the conversation and moments of nervous rooting around for new subjects. Maggie was now established as the arch-villain, hard to get close to, a tough cookie not attuned to more easy-going and humane Irish ways. The word was that she must have been the instigator of all the mischief. She was an easier target than myself. She was believed to have devised The Fixers formula, as well as delivering it. Her colours became more lurid, her origins, sinister, her craft bogus. She was the interloper, the outsider, the harpy. As a cruel woman, she was adjudged guiltier that any man could be and her disgrace greater. The show, as Damian had suggested, had become a monster. The product of our enthusiastic junction, the bright focus for our future, the promise that our names would live after us. All ashes now.
The funeral did not lay the turbulence to rest along with Susan. The newspapers continued to milk the drama, with headlines referring familiarly to the protagonists: ‘Slain Susan’s Agony’, ‘Tragic Susan’s Last Days’, ‘Where is Maggie?’, ‘Maggie goes into Hiding’.
Maggie’s teeth are locked in a smile as she walks, eyes averted, though the crush of reporters. The taxi – with its beckoning hazard lights – isn’t far away, but they’re hemming her in, closing off her escape route. They’ve tracked her from the lobby, where one, lurking to cover the lift, turned just in time to spot her exit from the stairs.
Now that she is on the move, Maggie can feel her shoulders softening and sinking: all easier, even if it’s like the old playground move: head down, keep going. Not hiding, or cringing, even when encircled. They are camped around the building, took turns to ring her bell, they have installed a tap on her phone. But at least there’s no window opposite hers, where they could rent another apartment, reach in with a telephoto lens. It most upsets her to think of them rooting through her bin. For a few days now, she has held on to all the garbage, as if receipts, tissues, eggshells have already been transformed into tokens of guilt. They can make it all add up, the fact that she’s continuing to buy groceries and petrol, build a story, an accusation. Her story. If she told it, would the nation forgive her?
She strides forward, strongly, yet also carefully, as if she was walking over seaweedy stones. More than a handbag, the rucksack gives her purpose and a sense of freedom. There’s a hard ungracious look to the day. Though it’s nearly eleven, the sunshine is still feeble.
They’re circling, goading, thrusting with their out-held mikes, it’s like the lion cage at the circus: the slaver, the stink. She won’t let them defile her. How they presume, with their ‘Maggies’ and ‘Susans’ and ‘Eoins’. At least Damian is proper. At this stage, she loves his pomposity: he speaks of ‘Miss Vernon’. Then she remembers that The Fixers was all about making its participants into household names. No one can say we didn’t succeed, she thinks grimly. No surnames, ever again. To the media pack, she’s the presenter in chief, the tormenter in chief. Grubby as she is, she has the effrontery to refuse to talk to them, the greatest sin. How dare she? Who does she think she is? (The people need answers, ‘Maggie Gone to Ground’, ‘Where is Maggie Hiding?’ and, in contradiction: ‘Maggie Cornered’.) She wants to tell them ‘I’m not hiding, but I’m not talking.’ The advice she got is to say nothing. They have burrowed into her life, prepared a Maggie Vernon dossier. What a gift to them that she used to be an agony aunt. (‘Now It’s Your Turn for Agony’, ‘Maggie Runs Out of Answers’). She isn’t cornered. She has buckled on her armour. Surprising and touching, the way Liz came in response to her phone call, and got her hair back in shape in the privacy of the apartment, no questions asked. Maggies’dress swings from the hips, she has donned the shades, the snood, the extra careful make-up. She needs to photograph well. Today’s image will be enlarged, cropped, encircled and reproduced over and over. What if she suddenly turned and made a pounce towards them, like in the game of ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?’ She never did that when Susan’s little gang were pricking Cora, but Maggie is different, isn’t she?
No. Her palms are again marked by her nails. Stigmata. Now fleeing again. No running allowed in the school yard, so Cora had to pass through them, grouped at the gate, putting on a big act of holding their noses as she comes near.
‘Funny smell, all of a sudden.’
‘Phew, what is that?’
‘Corrrr, it’s Cora!’
She keeps looking ahead, towards the taxi. It has parked as near as possible, but these few yards are endless, with some of the press gang running backwards in front of her, greedy to capture every flicker. In her head, she is humming, concentrating on the tune, Redemption Song, as carefully as if she was going to have to sing it later. Until the day before yesterday, she often hummed it on and off with the thought of seeing Eoin, and even now, she feels warmth wash over her.
Is Susan walking beside her, taking penguin steps? Susan who has put The Fixers on the front page, Susan who has trumped her after all. What was it that Eoin quoted some time back, from Damian’s column? Something like: ‘In this world, the strong are no match for the weak.’ Damian must have found it in some ancient text. Still, it’s a good line. Maggie no longer knows who is strong, who weak. Susan took a dark dive, apparently without shivering on the brink, and Maggie gives her that. She has to take off her hat to Susan who in the end left them all staring into the river, as if the answer was there. And now she’s reaching up to drag her down. Eoin too. They will flounder in doubt, never to know for sure. Susan kept it to this day, the ability to wrong-foot her. Her self-projection, and – Maggie winces to admit it – her creativity, has worked again. Maggie is no more a match for her than Cora used to be.
Maggie swings the taxi door open viciously, so the photographers have to move backwards.
‘Here, Maggie, this way, give us a shot, give us an interview.’
‘Go on, tell us your side of it. Here’s your chance.’
‘Just a quote, darling, a sound bite.’
When she does slip into the taxi, they push against the windows, drumming on the glass, unsettling. Who’s looking in, who out?
‘Come on, move, start the car.’
The driver is a middle-aged man with huge aviator style glasses.
‘You’re having a hard time,’ he says, as he puts the car into gear. ‘I’m going to drive around for a bit, and then you can tell me where you want to go. Unless you’re in a hurry, that is. I think I can lose those guys.’
‘Please do that,’ she says, lying back on the seat. He’ll do for a guardian angel.
With an automatic gesture, he switches on the radio. The news starts with an item about The Fixers. The broadcaster has just issued a more comprehensive response to Susan’s death. They will co-operate with a full enquiry and formulate a new code of practice for all shows that involve members of the public. In this way, the statement says, they’re dealing with the fallout and ensuring that nothing of the kind will ever happen again. The driver reaches to turn the radio off. She tells him that’s OK, leave it on. She won’t outrun scandal, she knows that. There’s no point in trying.
One place they won’t expect her to go is the the quay. She gets out and stands looking at the scene of Susan’s plunge. An incident scene. Preserved. Flowers, already softening in their cones of plastic. A bunch of seagulls hanging around. Brazen. She fancies that that dampness on the flagstones is from the dripping car. Nonsense, she tells herself, it has been raining since.
She gets back in the taxi, dials. ‘Eoin? On my way. Be with you in twenty’ Then she remembers the cab driver. She didn’t mean to let drop any names. Oh fuck it, no matter now. Everything seems too late.
I pottered around in Gerard’s garden, making an attempt to gather up leaves and weeds. Even if I had known what more expert tasks needed to be done, he wouldn’t have trusted me with them. When the daylight started fading, I washed my hands, slowly and carefully, relishing the innocent water, the olive oil soap, the heavy towel. Four o’clock. Too late or too early to start anything, and in any case there was only one thing that I wanted to start: a conversation with Maggie. All through the queer unnatural days since the funeral, I had been desperate to face her, yet desperate to put off, as long as I could, the moment when I’d say, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve something to ask you.’ I actually hoped she’d say ‘Wait a minute, I’ve something to tell you.’ Until I heard her story, we would be in a different country.
And it was strange to be alone in this house. I hadn’t spent a night here since another funeral. Daddy’s. The garden was plainer and barer, then. Valerie was heavily pregnant: Nicolas was born the next month, just too late for Daddy to hold him. I hadn’t seen much of Daddy till the cancer came. For the assembled relations and the three Jesuits who would celebrate his Mass, I was a talking point. ‘That’s the son from London. He has a job in TV over there.’ ‘ITV or BBC?’ ‘Not sure. Channel 4 maybe?’ However, when I listed the personalities I actually worked with, I felt their disappointment.
It was really decent of Gerard to take the family away to Kerry for half term. A spontaneous offer giving me refuge alone in their house. Decent, but not surprising. He never failed with the right gesture in emergencies, maybe because with Valerie and the kids he drew on a hinterland more spacious than mine.
I wasn’t in the humour to cook. For about an hour I wandered back and forth. On one prowling, I noticed a damp patch in the corner of the kitchen ceiling. Odd, that they would not have corrected it. Maybe even Valerie was becoming inattentive.
The doorbell rang.
I looked through the peephole in the front door, though I knew who was outside. Maggie was on the step, her straight back turned towards the door, looking out on to the deserted cul de sac. Over the curve of the hill, a rag of red light still hung in the sky.
‘You took your time about answering,’ she said as I opened the door, turning, smiling, as cool-headed as ever.
I gripped the doorknob to hide the tremor of my hand. I wanted her close, every moment, today and tomorrow. Yet I came out with: ‘Sorry, I’m scared the bloodhounds will rumble me here. Are you sure no one followed you?’
‘I don’t think you have to worry, Eoin,’ and now her smile was tighter. ‘The taxi driver took lots of detours and shook them off.’
‘Good’ I said. ‘I came by taxi too. With my car parked outside, they’ll think I’m at home.
‘Not for long they won’t’ she said. She was wearing a kind of draped hood thing I had never seen before, and I lifted it back from her head. ‘What’s this? Disguise?’
‘No, didn’t work. This is called a snood, by the way.’ Her usual cheekiness.
‘Snood…’ I repeated the word, drawing it out. ‘I like it.’
‘I can’t win,’ she said. ‘If I walk out, I’m brazen, if I take a taxi, I’m furtive.’
‘The public need you to be contrite.’
‘They swallowed me whole before and overrated me. Now they’re rejecting me whole. Some radio callers resent it that I’m still alive. No exaggeration.’
She slung her jacket on the banisters in the hall and put a rucksack leaning against them.
Something that used to make her Maggie was missing, but I couldn’t have said what it was. Her hair had its sharp edge, her dress was red jersey.
‘Great dress. Is it that colour crimson or scarlet?’ I asked, as I hugged her. ‘I never can remember the difference.’
‘Scarlet of course, that goes best with my image, don’t you think?’ she said, her laugh unsteady.
In the livingroom she spotted a half-empty dish with the remains of last night: my sad makeshift dinner.
‘Tuna and kidney beans, all tinned,’ she said. ‘Poor love, not your usual style.’
I had to smile back. ‘Nutritious, OK, but not too exciting,’ I said.
‘Don’t knock nutrition in these tough times. Morgan wouldn’t,’ she said wryly. ‘All right if I make coffee?’
‘Of course, you don’t have to ask.’
But I was glad she had. We stood face to face, like the speakers of two different languages who had forgotten the few words they knew of each other’s speech. She was the first to break, moving off into the kitchen. A few minutes later,,. I heard the kettle come to the boil, then silence. When I looked in after what seemed ages, I found her leaning with both her hands braced on the counter.
‘You always did make a mean cup of coffee,’ I said, putting my arms around her from behind, pressing my face into her hair.
‘You always did cook a fancy dinner, and clear away the dishes, but here we are, standards way down.’
‘Let’s keep the coffee for later,’ I said. Trying to bring back her quick and doing self. Now remote. OK, it was for me to ramp up the action. I waved her in, at the same time looking at my watch. If she noticed, she gave no sign. As she turned, expecting me to sit beside her on the couch, I sat opposite and looked straight at the painting on the wall behind her. Gerard collects had started collecting modern Irish art. This was a Mick Mulcahy.
‘Eoin, I want to stay here tonight.’
‘Don’t tell me. Your apartment is surrounded by reporters too.’
‘Yes, and I’ve stopped answering the phone.’
She plucked out a cigarette. I told her go outside.
She hesitated, then rose and roamed, restless, rolling the cigarette back and forth, twisting her necklace. I’d seen her do all that before, though at first I couldn’t remember when. Then it came back: the day we’d made the final selection for The Fixers, when she wanted to drop Susan. Susan who was now in the room with us. ‘OK, on to the patio at least,’ I said.
She laid the cigarette back on to the table.
‘Just forget it.’
The minutes were numbered. I had only one opening, one shot at goal, which if missed, would not occur again. An opening, but for what? A story that would explain, justify, reassure.
‘It’s not like you to hesitate,’ I said.
‘I’m afraid to lose sight of you, now we’re together.’
‘It’s not like you to be afraid, either.’
‘It’s not worthy of either of us to be afraid.’
‘You’re fucking mistaken, Maggie. I’m sacred shitless, worthy or not.’ I had so many questions I couldn’t put them into any kind of order. ‘What was going on with Susan? You must have more to tell me.’
‘You and I could always talk to each other, man to man,’ she said.
I didn’t laugh. She raised her hands behind her head, sat down, and let her legs fall slightly apart.
‘When I’m running, here in Ireland, I feel it again, that twitch, that fear that I won’t be able to escape them. I used to tell my agony aunt correspondents that bullying is mostly generic, not personal, that bullies do it because they enjoy it, and they can get away with it. I was convinced that my message, all my messages’ – she gave kind of snort – ‘made my readers stronger, but now I’m not sure.’
I don’t know what I expected to hear, but this was not it.
‘What are you fucking talking about? You’re going on about running and bullies and being an agony aunt. I want you to tell me now why you treated Susan so badly.’
‘I am telling you. You won’t get it any quicker by interrupting. I have to tell my story in my own way.’
I needed to give time, and also to gain it. A strange stray thought came into my mind.
‘What have you got in the rucksack?’
‘Running gear. Why?’
‘You brought it here to run, so run. Now. Put it on and go. At the end of this road, turn right, and keep turning right. That’ll bring you to the edge of the estate, and around, back to here. It’s probably about twenty minutes. All I’m hearing is about your experience of running, so go and get some more.’
Slowly, surprised into obedience, she found the bedroom and came down in a light jacket with reflective stripes, a fine black tee shirt and well-cut shorts. She pulled on gloves, and again covered her hair with the snood.
As she left, she blew me a kiss.
‘Run hard for twenty minutes, then we’ll have coffee.’
I cleared away the dinner debris, straightened the cushions on the sofa, and put a big one on the floor. I made the bed afresh and switched my phone to silent. Going to draw the curtains, I changed my mind and left them open. I opened the paper and read Damian’s latest column again.
And, for the second time, I let her in. Now trembling and her arms above the gloves chilled. Her jacket was tied around her waist, her tee shirt dry to the touch, yet smelling of sweat.
‘You‘ve really pushed it,’ I said. ‘Good.’
Standpoint by Damian O’Carroll
To quote W.B Yeats’ words addressed to an earlier Irish audience, on a different occasion: ‘you have disgraced yourselves again.’ The programme The Fixers has stained our entire country.
One hesitates to pry into the intimacy of a sudden death. Just when decency and restraint should keep us at a distance, and urge us to silence, now, au contraire, the prattle is deafening.
Yet the death of a woman in the fullness of her life, perhaps in despair, must be marked: not to disrupt the peaceful rest of the unfortunate lady, Mrs Reynolds, but to try and learn what we can about ourselves, to salvage a collective story. Irish TV stands accused of turning pain into spectacle, of cheapening and banalising truths about human hopes and disappointments, letting the public witness what they are not entitled to, that is, individuals stripped bare and hounded.
What pursuit of ratings and revenue can have spurred our TV executives to commission such a mean and tacky venture? They gave license to the belittlement of a vulnerable person for our sport. She used her undoubted skills, Miss Vernon, to goad another woman, and – it must be said – the audience shouted for more. Newly reborn as smart cynics, the Irish public seem desperate to appear as modern, direct, tough minded. We are fooling ourselves if we think our European neighbours will be impressed. We have simply shown that we can be as vulgar as any one else. If we have emerged, we are seared and quivering, and that is as it should be.
I bet the irony was not lost on Damian that Susan had been most likely to use the kind of language he especially scorned (me time, quality time, big time, no way). The pressure of the event and his previous engagement risked sweeping Damian into demand for sound bites, prescriptions for our recovery from The Fixers – induced malaise.
For many who had been only vaguely aware of him, he was installed overnight as the voice no one had listened to, a rock that stood for sanity while a tide of madness lapped around him. Phrases from his columns were quoted widely, and other journalists approached him for comment.
He had long argued that the show exemplified a slippage in standards, if not of morality, then at least of decency and taste. Now that so lurid an outcome had resulted, not so much proving him right, as exceeding his wildest fears, he was being sought out, to add to the rattle of self-examination. As if by his disdain for the show he had anticipated the tragedy, as if he knew something the rest of us didn’t know then and still don’t know – how it had happened. He always hated instant, facile responses, and he now he was keeping stumm. I guessed that he would drop mention of The Fixers for a while.
On the couch once more, I drew Maggie on to the cushion between my legs. I reached down to lift her tee shirt and snuggling against me, she slipped it up, enjoying a familiar routine. As I often did before we moved into the bedroom, I started sniffing her all over, especially her armpits and under her loosened bra, but then the rhythm changed, as I pulled off her tee shirt. I was afraid of what was coming, of the words: but there was no way back now.
‘I love it when you’re all damp,’ I whispered. ‘But I feel you have beans to spill.’
She picked up how my voice had shifted. ‘The kidney beans? I can spill them if you let me into the kitchen.’
I wasn’t going to be diverted, even if her joke had been funny. I doubt if I had ever before totally dismissed something she said.
‘Don’t you think you owe it to me to tell me what was going on in your mind?’
‘You know most of it.’
‘No I don’t.’
She twisted around to look at me, but I put one hand over her eyes, as I drew her head back against my tautening crotch.
‘You were bloody part of it. And your hand is awful, really sweaty, take it away,’ she said, trying to turn around again.
I reached for the snood, and slipped it over her eyes. ‘You want cool? Here, try this.’
She made to remove it, but the way I said, ‘Keep it on,’ halted her.
‘A novel way to start a conversation,’ she said, yet also shrugging to lean easily back between my thighs, while trying to bring my hand to her breast.
I resisted, I was full of a curdled compassion mixed with other feelings, less generous and more obscure.
‘I’ll tell you over coffee,’ she said.
That she still swaggered made me more ready to hold the accuser’s stance. ‘You’ll tell me before, you’ll tell me now, or you’ll get no coffee.’ I heard my own words, and heard her hearing them. My voice sounded different. I wasn’t talking about coffee, but about time. ‘You said you were afraid to lose sight of me. Well, you’re going to lose sight of me, so be afraid. It’s about time you were afraid.’
‘Funny how you go off people,’ she said, with hard won jauntiness. I held the grim note, though the touch of her between my legs was setting off a sweet commotion. She knew it, and was using it.
‘Maggie, I’m sitting behind you. Right now. You’ve your head on my fucking dick, if you hadn’t noticed.’
As if I hadn’t heard the dry note, I continued. ‘I’m looking at you, and you look, as usual, magnificent, a tigress,’ I said. ‘You’re beautiful. But, for fuck’s sake…’
It almost happened, as so often before, that just how she moved or looked at me could bridge at a stroke the gulf between us, leave me weak and cold with desire.
‘What? You’re pissed off because I’m being a tiger? Right?’ Her voice came from below the light black fabric of her snood.
I didn’t answer.
‘Eoin, what’s all this theatre about?’ she said suddenly. ‘It’s incredibly corny. Will you please take this thing off, or else I will.’
‘Don’t you as much as try.’
‘You’re in an ugly mood, aren’t you?’ she said.
‘You’re wrong,’ I told her. ‘It’s not a mood.’
A gesture that told me she wasn’t going to try. As if relaxing, she put her hands on her thighs, and let her legs drop open slightly. Chutzpah.
‘OK,’ I said, compromising, ‘Let’s stay as we are until I’ve heard all your story. You know you always drove me mad with lust. Still do. I fucking love you. But I don’t want to be distracted by your hair or your cheekbones. Especially not by your stare. I just want your mouth, but I’m not going to give into that either. So you’re going to stay muffled till, as you say, you’ve told your own story in your own way.’
The rain was dimming the room, yet I felt a flush of perspiration on my brow. ‘I turned up the heat while you were out running,’ I told her. ‘I thought you would appreciate it when you came back.’
She gave a snort of laughter. ‘You sure have.’
‘Look Maggie. For God’s sake. I need to hear the truth.’ My tone was reasonable yet pleaded for honesty. ‘Now, why did you lean on Susan and belittle her?’
‘You know what I did. You saw every second of it.’
‘Yes. But I don’t understand why. Now I’m asking you. What happened? What else happened? What was going on, really?’
I leaned forward, looked closely, but her chin didn’t tremble. I had to hand it to her: she was defiant.
‘As for me,’ she said sarcastically. ‘I really enjoyed taking on the cloak of a wicked fairy, the black hair against the blonde, even though, at this stage’ – she laughed – ‘neither colour was our own. What else happened? Jesus, where to start? You wanted a show with fireworks, turbulence, remember? I gave you that.’
She stopped. Then went on, as if spurred by my stunned silence.
‘What is there to say? The woman was neurotic, narcissistic, in love with her TV image and with the audience. I just took a lead from that. You saw how the other participants coped all right.’
‘But you’re a psychologist, an expert. Did you not pick up the warning signs?’
She folded her arms, sort of hugged herself. ‘Why don’t you at least touch me?’
‘I can’t run that risk.’
‘Describe yourself at this moment.’
‘Nice try,’ I said, laughing. ‘Don’t even think about shifting the conversation that way, baby. But since you ask, I’d say I’m like a surgeon, with a lancet poised, ready to make an incision. And I’ve all my clothes on. Talk.’
She took the stroke steadily, and continued, as if only now was she beginning to understand.
‘You remember I didn’t want you to select Susan. Then I didn’t want to go on the panel.’
‘But you agreed to both.’
‘Come on, Eoin, that was your doing. You as good as begged me.’
With a small flicker of fear, I remembered. I longed to silence her. ‘Don’t throw the blame on to me, sweetheart,’ I said.
‘They were my two steps to disaster. I moved straight into what I should have run away from. It was like I lit on Susan by a trick of fate. I was sure she’d recognise me. In a way, I was hoping she would.’
‘Recognise you? As what?’
Maggie was moving away from my questions. She was thinking aloud. ‘Now, be fair to me. There are reasons for what I did. All my starved childhood claimed its due. All the years I lost because of that bitch, years that weren’t mine. They were stolen. The bully doesn’t remember, the victim never forgets. Suddenly, I had an opportunity too good to resist. The Fixers was supposed to be Cinderella but for me it was Faust, an irresistible bargain. I could make her pay and I could get away with it. Or at least I thought I could. That’s enough for a bully. I wouldn’t swear that the other women really bought into our spoof about their bravery, about being Cinderellas or role models, but she certainly did. She played the only card she ever had, the little woman, the mom, the woman next door, all pink and silver. I didn’t resist, I couldn’t.’
Her hands fell with a discouraged gesture. Though the room was hot I felt a chill. I wanted to stop her, but had to hear her out.
‘The chance of revenge.’
‘I’m lost, Maggie.’
‘I was at school with Susan. She and her gang used to torment me.’
‘Tormented you? You’re fucking kidding.’
I liked Susan least of all the four, but I thought she was harmless – the public’s favourite for a short while.
‘I wish I was kidding. You know how she needs…’ As if she felt my look, she stopped. ‘Needed. To have everything nice and shiny? Just like in school. Always the latest style of pencil case or runners. My family was ramshackle. My mother was a kind of a hippy. My father usually came home late and then there were rows.’
I was fighting the temptation to lean over, take her hands, pull them towards me. Her lovely competent hands.
‘Bullying?’ I asked, bewildered. ‘Of you?’
I saw playground scenes, two boys swinging punches. My father saying, ‘Kids being kids, that’s all.’
I knew girls were different, usually crueller, but I found it pathetic that Maggie could have been upstaged by pink and glitter sandals, cherry nail varnish, little dogs, and holidays in Crete.
‘How bad could it have been, to make you so vicious? What are you talking about? What did they do?’
‘Loads of cruel stuff. With her little gang around her, Susan could be inventive.’
I borrowed a forensic tone. ‘Maggie, what did they actually do?’
‘At my first and only birthday party, they stayed clustered together as if in danger. They must have arranged for all their dads to collect them early, running together to meet them in the hall, just as my mother announced that tea was ready. For days afterwards, I had to take her clumsily-iced buns and her homemade soft drinks for school lunch, to use them up. I used them up all right. I fed them to a neighbour’s dog. Year after year, I told my mother that I didn’t want another party and then she’d promise to fix up the house but eventually the other girls stopped asking me to their own parties, so it didn’t matter. I had no favours to return.’
‘There’s a comic side to that.’
‘Oh yeah? You find it comic?’
‘Well, the bit about the dog, anyway. Go on, tell me the worst stuff.’
I sounded quite peppy, finally understanding things, but she was shaking now.
‘A swung schoolbag stinging my cheek, so I fell against the lockers, then immediately tripped up, to hoots of, ‘She can’t even walk straight!’ Peeping under the door when I was in the toilet, cries of ‘Stinko! Ploppy!’ then no one around when I came out. My cheeks always aflame at the school gates, before I started to run. They pretended they were my friends, cut me off from others, then left me high and dry. In sixth class, I was chuffed to be named as a prefect. A harmless job, all about bringing the roll book from one class to another, ringing the bell. On my first day Susan whispered that I got it only because she and her gang had backed me. It showed their power. So that evening, when my mother, all impressed, wanted to see my badge, I took it off, and dropped it into her hand. By then I hated it. But the headmistress made me put it back on.’
‘That was the worst?’
‘No. One afternoon, I thought the locker room was empty. As I turned to leave, a coat was thrown over my head, more than one girl wrestled me to the ground. Voices saying I had been found guilty of stealing, and would be punished. Then hands pulling down my pants. They must have got hold of a nun’s strap: my buttocks stinging, as I struggled against the woollen coat that they held firmly in place to silence me. Then a voice. Susan’s, “Don’t move for a count of twenty-five or say a word, unless you want to get this again.” I lay stripped and sobbing on the floor. It didn’t end there.’
I longed to silence her. ‘Gross, but over now, in the past. I don’t know why you’re still talking about this stuff.’
‘Because I need to tell you. Because nobody has ever fucking listened. You have to see the shape, the meaning too. Susan’s little gang would have done anything for her. I wanted to be like them, but I knew, and they knew, I never would be. I was always unsure what to say, but they seemed to know a secret that I had missed.’ She laughed drily. ‘Then, you came along, sweetheart. You and The Fixers. On The Fixers I became Cora again, but now a Cora that, wonderfully, had power, could look down at the participants, as if they were sugar cubes on the table, and do what I wanted with them. I could melt them at the edges, like happened to Susan last week. It was rigged, your tame little woman makeover show. More rigged than the Big Top. We called the shots, we demanded that they were real. They had to lay themselves open, but we could choose how real we wanted to be. Susan was oblivious of what she had done, of her bullying period. She wasn’t hiding anything, she had just forgotten. Put it behind her, as you think I should too? But I now knew what she had known right from the start. The enjoyment, the lure of it. And I know you found it a turn on.’
I kept all the pity and desire out of my voice as I went on trying to be an interrogator.
‘We got something more real than we planned. You certainly gave her a hard time, everyone noticed.’
The curtains were still open, though by now it was pitch black outside. I was nervous of reporters looking in but found myself unable to make the move to close them.
‘Maggie, please help me understand. My mind keeps tossing. Give me your professional opinion. Could she have felt bad enough to kill herself?’
Maggie made a gesture of exasperation. ‘Who knows? Maybe? Hardly? For Susan, The Fixers was all about herself. She was so needy for positive messages, for ‘lurve’ from the public, that she couldn’t survive my showing her up on camera. She thought they’d turned against her.’
Our talk became smoother, gentler, as we shared views of Susan.
‘The public are her champions now, more than ever,’ I said. ‘They saw her tears and now they demand to see ours. The puzzle of her plunge has made her into a kind of saint. And an enigma. Now she ‘owns’ The Fixers.’
‘She’s welcome to it.’
‘The Fixers was like our child. Original, ambitious.’
‘Our monster, our abortion, more like.’
It seemed we were conducting a wake, and it wasn’t just for the show. I feared it was for everything we had meant to each other. I went back to the questions.
‘But how come she didn’t recognise you?’
‘I was surprised myself, but the theories of perception…’
I let out a groan. ‘Jaysus, spare me…’
‘No, listen,’ she said. ‘They talk about how context is everything. I was the bossy Aussie full of brisk authority, from another world, from TV. She couldn’t believe her luck at finding herself out in that magic space, in front of the camera. She was in awe of anyone who looked at home there. Whatever part inside her that could have recognised me chose not to. Besides, we hadn’t seen each other for years. And my hair was different, my name was different. The girl I was back then, they would hardly have thought I would end up becoming a successful psychologist.’
We were now almost chatty as if I had found again my frank and easy comrade.
‘You’ve got to admit, the camera loved me,’ she said.
‘You were the expert, the cosmopolitan, the sexpot. She was lumpy and girly.’
‘I got high on the risk. It thrilled me that at any moment, the way I cleared my throat or moved my hands, could give me away.’
‘Why didn’t you just say who you were and ask her to apologise?’
‘Eoin, you don’t have a clue do you? You don’t have a fucking clue. That would be going into forthright Aussie mode, not the roundabout Irish one.’
We were out of phase again.
‘Give me a clue, then,’ I said.
‘I was backing The Fixers all the way for your career, but unlike you, I also believed in the show, how it could transform women’s lives. I believed it because that was my own story. Then they came along, all together, the jackpot on the fruit machine: change, choice and chance all lined up. I remember the way I felt. Gleeful. When she came on to the set, all pink and silver, I could have reefed my nails into her smooth cheeks, domed like her moronic cupcakes. Made up as the little woman: “It’s only me.” Eoin, you made me believe that I was right for the show because all my virtues were positive, and that she was right for the show because her virtues were all negative. You expected an untroubled backstory. Also, if she was annoying, it would create more interest. You bet it did. Susan had her imaginative moments as a child, but she turned into a colourless adult. Boring.’
Silence, except for the barking as Gerard’s neighbour arrived home, greeted his dogs.
‘Well, there you have it,’ she said.
I stood up, moving her off me, and poured myself a whiskey from Gerard’s cabinet. ‘That cold stare of yours,’ I said, turning to look at her, as she pulled up the snood. ‘In the clip from the last programme. It’s now the default shot for The Fixers. That’s the face that would have stopped her. That’s all that was needed, Maggie. You wanted to show it to her at school, but never did.’
‘I was a child! I was gripped always by a sense of nameless dread, never knowing what I’d find when I got home from school. I thought a lot about Susan, dreamt of turning the tables, constructed elaborate traps for her: how she was caught without her clothes, pinioned, blindfolded with her Brownie cap, mocked for what she was proud of, her knickers inspected and declared by me to be disgusting and stinky.’
Girls did this to each other? All new territory to me.
‘On The Fixers, I was sure she would recognise me, and in a way, I was reconciled to being found out. But she was distracted by my halo as a world authority. I was a successful psychologist turned popular writer, speaker and TV personality’ – she threw up her hands – ‘well, let’s say a consummate performer, so she would have been sure she had never seen me before. I was nothing like that scared girl she once knew.’ A recoil of pride. ‘You want the rest of it, Eoin?’
‘What do you think?’ I said drily.
‘I knew that beyond the playground there must be a fairer world, that could correct all those tough breaks. I worked to build that through my practice and my column. But with Susan in my sights, the playground was everywhere. The whole world was again a boundless plain of striving, competition and torment. For Susan, I baked my own cake, a little cake of malice, mixed the ingredients, let it macerate, soaking with the full juicy weight of it, like a yeasty mass under a tea towel in in a warm uplift of draught. I dreamed I saw her bite into it. Then she was no longer pink, but black, blown around in a throaty roar of fire.’
‘You’ve been reading too many fairy tales.’
The Fixers wasn’t for Breege, for Jacqueline or Tracey or Susan, it was for Cora. Maggie felt that she had made herself up, reinvented herself, had soared into the dry Australian air, leaving behind the soggy climate of Ireland, the pull of the pain inflicted every day at school, the shame of her odd name. She had converted Irish hesitancy and fuzzy speak into Australian bluntness and pragmatism. But on returning to Ireland, she was tripped up and reverted to Cora.
I suddenly felt close to her suffering and to this, the biggest reinvention story of the lot.
‘I left it all behind when we moved to Oz. All that sadness, all those slights. I should never have come back here. I thought there was no longer such a person as Cora, only Maggie.’
‘The tables were turned. Susan was now at your mercy. You were the star, the professor. She was ordinary, a pudgy suburbanite, a cast-off wife.’
‘Once I agreed – on your persuasion – to select her, I was Cora, only now a powerful Cora, able to strike and get away with it. I enjoyed it.’
‘Like she used to.’
‘Exactly. The risk was thrilling, too. Sometimes, even as I sipped on my vengeance, I saw her looking at me, and almost willed her to remember.’
‘Now you’re spooking me,’ I said. ‘Maggie, she was alive when she went over that edge, into the slime of the Liffey.’
‘So? I don’t believe the silly bitch would go through with a suicide stunt. Her profile doesn’t fit. I wouldn’t have been surprised at some fumbled gesture, some attempt at melodrama. She’s standing in my path again, only now she’s exited to create an untouchable image. Why did I ever come back to this fucking country? It’s deadly. It blights lives. I was working with lots of respect and success in Oz. Now I’m caught in the foggy Irish stuff, where nothing is clear-cut, everyone wraps what they mean in qualifications and apologies. I thought I could blow away that fog, but instead, it started leaking into me. My old fear held me fast.’
The room had suddenly grown very small. I felt the hammer beat of my heart.
‘I’m talking about the schoolyard,’ she went on.
How could her voice stay so steady?
‘I thought I had escaped from it, into a place of fairness, of justice. But when I saw Susan again, the world turned back into the world of Matthew’s primates, only now I was the dominant one.’
‘But why would she have put up with it?’
She sounded exasperated. ‘Susan would put up with anything that had to do with TV.’
‘You remember the first night we slept together?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Well on the path outside Volare, I quoted you some lines of poetry, and I said there was another bit I couldn’t remember? They came from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. “Rest after toil, port after stormy sea, ease after war,” and – the bit I hate repeating now, didn’t want to say then – “death after life does greatly please.” It haunts me. That’s how poor Susan must have felt, after you humiliated her on TV.’
‘Well read little bastard, aren’t you? And superstitious. You being sorry for poor Susan, as you call her, didn’t do her any good, did it? Well, if you want my professional opinion, I‘m sticking to the line that she misjudged the distance on the quay. If I were you, I’d do the same.’
Neither of us spoke for a bit, while the rain rinsed down the window. Beyond, the garden stretched silently, lit only by the light spilling from the room. Gerard’s solar-powered garden lighting had gone off long ago.
‘I need to tell my story, repeat it till I don’t have to tell it any more,’ she said.
‘That sounds very Freudian, surely not your bag.’
Maggie stretched herself like she used to do every morning before getting out of bed. ‘Eoin, we were right and we were wrong. We were right, sadly, about how people, well, people like Susan anyway, will queue up to be bullied as long as it’s on TV. We were wrong about the past being just a piece of luggage people can let drop, like the significant objects we made them destroy. I suddenly didn’t want to let it drop. I actually enjoyed plumping up my cushion of hate.’
‘Cora and Maggie, they were both in your skin, and Maggie had to get even?’
She clapped her hands ironically.
‘Very good, sweetheart. You’re getting the picture.’
‘I wonder do you have any idea, at all, of the picture?’ I said. I suddenly knew how the child Susan felt, why she kept jabbing an exposed nerve. Malice rose in me, like a jet of bile.
‘What do you mean?’ She was picking up the spite in my voice.
‘Do you want to know the rest of it? The picture the Irish public are getting about you?’
‘I know. I’m being demonised as the dominatrix, the puppeteer. No longer the sexpot you just described me as’
‘It’s worse than that. The Black Widow, they’re calling you. There are stories that you married Matthew for his money, and may even have done away with him.’
This last touch was invented: suddenly, I wanted to be cruel.
For the first time, she flinched, and turned, throwing the snood on the ground. ‘You coward, how dare you speak like that about Matthew. He saved me, I owe everything to him. He was a real man, the man of my life. Not like you, all atremble about a dim little TV show. Have you ever listened to yourself? Screwed up, sexist and smug. A scaredy-cat. My Aussie women friends would soon sort you out. We like our men to have balls.’
I lunged across the room, wrapped my arms around her grabbing her hands with one hand, half-lifted, half-led her into the bedroom and stretched her, face down, on the bed. I didn’t take off all my clothes till much later, when we lay exhausted, finally exchanging tender caresses.
A bad start. Now standing by the bed, looking at Eoin’s tumbled trousers, she cops on. She has skipped it. No wake-up stretch, no exercise, for the first time in ten years. Doris’ face, seamed and kind,with a far-away look, her broad bust, in a floral frock, is in front of Maggie. Doris would understand. Maggie certainly won’t go back, do an action replay on getting up. The furies wouldn’t be conned by a ruse. It’ll have to be an experiment, to find out whether, on this day that has already started, such a lapse will count against her. And anyway, this will not be an ordinary day. Eoin won’t figure in it. Eoin, who is like a rat on less than eight hours sleep. If she has to, she can function on six. Or less. Each knowing how much sleep the other needs: now no longer important, no more than their other exchanges – at breakfast, about their dreams, at dinner, about their days.
His trousers a twisted shape on the floor. Another change. Even when they started their lovemaking at the front door, he had never got into bed without smoothing his trousers over his arm, and laying them, folded, on a chair. She looks from them to his face, scrunched sideways into the pillow. He’s lost. It’s as if he will never come back. The nape of his neck, so often kissed – even in the night that’s past – with the little knob of bone, the skin matching, merging into the brown of his hair. A place no one can see in themselves, defenceless as when he was tiny. He mustn’t waken. That could loosen words and his words have wrecked everything. So now words are over.
The room where they talked (if that’s what they were doing) has settled again into its well-mannered, cool existence. Running gear into the rucksack, all except the tee shirt, which is still somewhere back in the bedroom. A mistake, not to have kicked it under the bed, to be found later. They’re sure to have a cleaning lady, who’ll show it to Valerie. A little unsettling souvenir. Puzzlement all round. Trainers are best for a getaway, even if odd with her fine, now rumpled, dress. Rucksack on to one shoulder: she never inserts the second arm. Out in the porch, pulls the door shut, turns to look back at the house. No way back now. No keys. The façade is neutral: closed, not welcoming. She won’t ever make a fourth visit, that’s for sure. After the introduction, that evening when she was an audience for the family folklore, at the second dinner she took the lead, acted more Australian, argued. And then, the night just past, of hot spillage, when the words came out, the ones she feared knowing how she would say sometime.
The sun a spreading orange fringe behind the clouds, over the Dublin mountains. Salute to the sun: that’s a yoga sequence, one Doris used a lot. What else to salute? What else deserves saluting? A class act, the big dumb world doing its number, spreading out its show. Regardless of her heartbreak, of where she’s heading, of where she might end up. Soon, Gerard’s neighbours will be driving off in their cars. Could be Australia, with the low garden walls and the tough looking old folk, the dogs. She is strengthened by her two much loved garments, never before worn together. Do they notice it, the dog walkers, how the trainers lower her, ground her, don’t fit with the soft hang of her scarlet jersey dress, a dress that calls for heels? But like the girls shaking with cold and fatigue as they leave the nightclubs, she tucks one high heel into each pocket, moves with the swing of them. The young ones usually hang their boy’s still-warm jacket around their shoulders. No boy. She doesn’t need one. She is intent on business. So is the dog she passes as she walks up the cul de sac. His athletic body is full of spring, but his square crinkled muzzle gives away his sadness. A purebred boxer, out by himself. Maybe he’s running away too. She gives him a wave.
How dare the sun come up as if nothing has happened, as if she didn’t want to howl, stretch fists to the sky, rip up a lawn, spit in a baby’s eye, curl up in the middle of the road, hang from a branch, take an old lady hostage, make an escape on the postman’s bike. She does none of these.
To fend off dejection, she needs a spirit more commanding and jaunty. Just William’s spirit. That will see her through. Now she begins to run, fleet of foot, the dress flapping around her legs as she lengthens her stride. The road takes a slight downward slope, and the city is spread out below, with its few tall buildings: Rathmines church dome, Liberty Hall, the open arms of Dun Laoghaire harbour and the stubby snout of Howth Head. She has heard that soon there is to be a metallic spire at the site of Nelson’s Pillar.
This isn’t bus country. If she saw a taxi, she wouldn’t know what to say when the driver asks her ‘where to?’ Best just to run into the city. The two shoes are weighting her jacket pockets. Like six guns. She’ll put them in her rucksack, swing the bag across both shouders and run for a bit, and then maybe there’ll be a shop for the hit of rubbish food, the Coke and crisps that were her Friday pub ritual, in spite of Eoin’s disapproval. The city seems to be awakening in synch with her running. Miles away, a storm is building.
A new experience, to buy a book for a child. Will he be puzzled to hear from someone of her age, no longer even on the fringe of the family? Not giving herself time to think, Maggie moves quickly into the unfamiliar children’s section of a bookshop. Few examples of William books on the shelves. Are they out of fashion? Why? Too English, too well written? Then she lights upon the first in the series. It has a more colourful cover than her own copy, but the illustrations are the same. She buys it, then a jiffy bag. At the post office, she addresses it to Nicholas Doherty, writes on the flyleaf. ‘I think you’ll like how he wins through every time.’ She smiles at the man who sells her the stamps.
I felt I’d only to keep my eyes shut, reach out my arm, and touch her. But beside me now was an empty space. All empty. I searched. Down at the end of the bed, I hit a soft bundle. I caught it between my feet and pulled it up. A black tee shirt. Maggie’s. I was holding it when I swung out of bed, into the room that seemed askew. My trousers lay twisted on the floor and one arm of my grey jumper hung from a chair, limp, like a partly uncovered corpse. The strange fierce night we had spent was beginning to move into focus. Her tee shirt against my chest. I pushed my nose into it. I headed towards the living room, but before I opened the door, my heart smote me. I knew for sure I was on my own. Maggie had left. Left the house, left me.
Quickly into the kitchen, grabbing for the kettle. It should have been empty, like everything else but the weight of it threw me, the fullness. Maggie had started the preparations for coffee before I ordered her to stop, ages ago, in the first of many derailments that ended with my jibe about Matthew. That was cruel. It was meant to be and I felt again how, at that moment, I had enjoyed saying it. The little spray of pleasure, like the sting of that stuff dentists use to freeze your gum.
I made tea and for the first time in about twelve years, craved sugar. More hunting around. The logic of other people’s cupboards always takes figuring out. Lifting the spoon, I found it shook uncontrollably, rattled against Valerie’s classily rustic sugar bowl, part of an early Simon Pierce range. She was one of the first to buy his stuff. I had to grab my right hand with my left, and steady it, leading it down on to the worktop. I abandoned the tea. The sugar wouldn’t have masked the ugly taste I was getting now, like the juice pressed from a suppurating tooth. I collapsed to sitting on the floor.
Maggie had called me a coward when, frightened by her sorcery, I aimed to bring her low, and then had to master her. Now I was frightened for her, and of how our love had snagged. Suddenly, I was shaking all over, as if hit by a fever or a biting wind. I picked the tee shirt up from my lap and tried to pull it on. It was too tight, so I knotted it around my neck and buried my face in it again. I drew my knees up in front of me and wrapped my arms around them. Snuffle.
When we were happy lovers, she often put on my clothes, and it could stop my breath to see her in one of my round-necked cashmere jumpers, or a roomy white shirt, and often I had sampled the feel of her Japanese dressing gown with the gold dragon on the back. I had used her snood almost like a weapon in our combat, but the tee shirt had turned into a relic, to be clasped for as long as it still smelled of her, the only thing that I could hold on to, anywhere in the wide world.
I remember once wondering which of us would be the first to wring tears from the other. Maybe, wherever she was, Maggie had started to cry too, beaten me to it. I didn’t care. I was crying now, for the cruelty she had suffered from Susan, and from me.
‘What’s the address?’
I had to think for a moment before answering the taxi driver.
‘It’ll be twenty minutes, OK?’
OK by me. I had an urge to tidy the living room, but when I looked around, it was already tidy. Again, she had pre-empted me. The room should have stunk like the cellar of some state security bureau; the air should still have twanged from our wrestling, our final surge of desire. But it was orderly, as if after one of Gerard and Valerie’s civilised dinner parties, when everything was tidied away before they went to bed. I’m told that not every place can become a battlefield, but those that do so, hold on to the tang of slaughter. The room where we had slogged it out should have kept a rustiness, a metallic smell from a story that I had insisted on hearing – only to find that I would have been better off not to. In that combat, who had won, who lost? I was sure that she left with her head held high. I wouldn’t. I stripped the bed, ramming the sheets into the basket, and the tee shirt into my pocket. I didn’t wash it that day, nor ever since, and it has gone everywhere with me.
During the jumpy period between the funeral and the inquest, the broadcaster engaged a therapist to work with us survivors, a group I mentally christened the Fixers Six, reduced from the original eight. . As responsible employers, they wanted to show cause, acknowledge our trauma, maybe also forestall later revelations or lawsuits.
Jacqueline and John declined the offer. And Maggie? Maggie was gone. My first impulse was to skip it. The Fixers and its aftermath was such a talkfest that I felt weary.
‘Just one session, then,’ I conceded to the HR Department. Breege, Tracey, Morgan, Dymphna and Padraig all did the same.
The therapist did his best. He spoke about healing, about grieving, about a process. He wanted me to write, by hand, to Susan. ‘As long as you like, pour it all out, read it, and then burn the letter. That way, you’ll get some closure.’ So I wrote, though I found no closure.
For a start, to write a letter felt strange. I could think back only to the stilted pages sent home from Aix en Provence, where I spent a month on a student exchange with a French family, all about tennis lessons and goûters of pain au chocolat in the garden, and how the mother of the family was delighted with my progress in French conversation. Now I sat at my desk trying to frame words in longhand, in a squared copybook. The squares kept my writing reasonably straight, though when I saw line after line, it looked unfamiliar.
The therapist made suggestions. ‘Do you think you could journal that?’ Or, ‘Have you thought of journaling it?’ Since the age of twelve, I can journal for Ireland. He urged me to ‘just let it all stream’, but before I could even open the copybook, I had to rush out for a walk, tidy the house, drink lots of tea. So that’s what writers’ block is like. I was glad I had always given a wide berth to the modish courses in structuralism and post-modernist shit. Students of the future would have the pleasure of deconstructing The Fixers as discourse, The Fixers: myths of reinvention, The Fixers and the fabrication of Irish femininity. They can keep it. To me, The Fixers was a gallery of mirrors, splintering and multiplying. I had my doubts that there was really such a thing as closure and the word was profoundly irritating. Then, the thought: ‘Cop yourself on. You’re starting to sound more and more like Damian.’ I wanted at that moment to go up to him and enfold him in a big hug. I laughed to think how much he’d hate that.
I feel a bit stupid writing to someone whose whereabouts I don’t know, and who is certainly not going to answer. But the therapist advises me to ‘tell all’ about the debacle of The Fixers and now I’m sitting down to do what he says. Let me make this quick. Though I can’t really buy his chirpy message that we’ll all integrate the trauma and move on, somehow, just now, clichés fit best, they stick: ‘Move on, just get on with it, at the end of the day, life goes on.’ Since you died, Susan, I’ve been brimful of your language. Like the others, I’ve been transformed overnight into a Fixers participant: docile, unquestioning, ready to do whatever the last person I spoke to suggests. Without Maggie, wily and ballsy, I can’t stand up to anyone.
I now know how they felt, those stricken relatives who stood in front of my glass cubicle at the hospital, during the long chill hours of my receptionist job. Those hours I spent absorbed in writing up my journalism projects, while what the News of the World called ‘all human life’ washed around me. Like shades searching in the underworld, they pleaded for news. On the phone, too, they clung to the authority that coloured my words, so that their calls – certainly dreaded, maybe postponed – carried huge risk and longing. I had been trained to sound empathic, whilst essentially fobbing them off, giving as little information as possible, above all careful neither to dash nor raise hopes. I dared not in any way risk a cause of action against the hospital. So my first response was to establish if they were next of kin. They sometimes asked why, otherwise, would they be ringing? So, to a very particular pain (‘it’s my wife, my son I’m asking about’), I offered a terse generic answer. ‘He is comfortable.’ ‘She spent a good night.’ ‘You can ring the ward when the day staff comes on.’ ‘Ask for Sister. She will give you more information.’
In seeking news, confirmation, comfort, from you, Susan, I have become the searcher, the one who is skipped over, left waiting, whose time is unimportant. Who now wants to be seen with me? ‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek.’ Flee because my distress, my failure, stains me. I’m a leper, a pariah. Deservedly so. I’m wandering, repeating my question, not liking the answer and asking again.
Maggie would laugh, if she read this. ‘Three paragraphs and so far it’s all about yourself, sweetheart.’ So, here goes, I’ll try to start again. And no, it’s not going to be short.
‘Change, choice and chance,’ seemed like a cheap memorable phrase. We think we can achieve the first, by exercising the second, but everywhere here it is the third that holds sway. Susan, I believe it was chance, not choice, that propelled you over the edge of the quay – the most enormous change imaginable. Now you’ve emerged as both heroine and victim – a neat trick, Maggie would probably say. Unbeatable. My guess is that you didn’t actually mean to kill yourself, but that story is circulating, and the story is what counts. You have what you were after. Fame. You’re not Kurt Cobain, or Jim Morrison, or Marilyn Monroe, but you grabbed our attention, as you never would have if you’d lived on to sell your cupcakes, get Alzheimer’s, or even succumb to cervical cancer. I don’t believe you put your foot down when the car was facing the edge. All you did, I believe, was to miscalculate the stubborn, inescapable realities of speed and distance. But, then, how the fuck can I be sure?
I have to ask, though, what went through your mind, at the moment of tilt. It may seem irreverent, (though truth to tell, I don’t really care), but I see it as a scene from an old cartoon, when the car continues straight through the air for a bit. You hung, suspended over the water, then tumbled down, to where the river waited, ruffled or smooth, unclean with petrol traces, where seagulls bobbed unaware that they would soon have a feast of cake, their pale feathers matching the little frets of white on the waves. They must have soared, escaped, as you couldn’t, indignation in their cold greedy eyes at being tossed about when a car fell out of the sky beside them. They’d have stayed away till the surface stopped rocking. Animals always know how to react to turbulence. If only I could do the same – fly off till the Fixers outrage dies down. Like a cartoon character, there seems (excuse me, I keep forgetting: seemed) an admirable indestructible quality to you, like a silent film heroine. A doll: shiny, hard to break. But break you did. Or did we break you?
When I think of you, it’s about how you laughed little, but smiled a lot, whereas Maggie did the opposite. Was it you or she that did for me at the end? Sorry, I should admit that I was done for by the two of you. For the past few weeks, when I imagine Maggie, you spring up also, each of your elbows touching mine when I walk, or both stepping towards my bed during my four in the morning jitters. Out of the couple that was Maggie and me, you’ve made a threesome. I’m interested in you now, but I’ve little to go on. Susan, we thought of you as different from the other participants. You were not newly released from a convent, from jail, from the spite of a little town, from anywhere. Since ‘release’ was our mantra, the pain from your dumping by Cathal was kind of overlooked. That you were overlooked: what could be more hurtful for you to hear? But I believe, maybe I hope, now you’re beyond being hurt. You are now, invariably, described as ‘a very private person’. Another essential virtue. We both know that’s garbage. You volunteered to make a personal appearance on TV, spoke of your marital problems to the entire nation.
Now, I need to warn you, more hurt is coming. Once you were selected, I paid you little attention. I pushed Maggie into taking you: you were the trigger for our first row. And our last, and many in between. But once I’d got my way, you didn’t really count much, you dropped out of sight. I let you be, wrapped securely in your insecurity. Good fodder for a nation of rubberneckers. You must have been lonely as you spoke to hundreds of thousands of people. But it didn’t show in a way that gave me concern: I was always on the lookout for trouble, but I was looking in the wrong place, at Jacqueline. Mind you, Maggie’s attack in your business interview rattled me. Through all the transcripts, this small clip, and her stony look, comes up over and over, like a trump card. I believe it’s the most real – maybe the only real – moment in the whole of our reality show.
Yet you didn’t seem all that devastated. Susan, I never thought of you as especially fragile. That’s a compliment, from me. And there lingered touches of the charisma that once brought that little schoolyard gang to your side. Needy you may have been, but you got your way in the bungalow: you set the agenda around your concerns.
Over and over, I see you being prepped before the first programme. ‘Made up.’ It applied to you in both senses. You loved your look. You greeted yourself in the mirror. Then you went out to Maggie and the panel and the audience and the viewers and made yourself up as the little woman. I reckoned that of the participants you’d fade most quickly from public memory. How wrong can one be? You’re gilded now, with the glamour of a premature, puzzling death. You’ve become everybody’s property, like the victims of the Troubles, available to be co-opted at will. We feel entitled to speak for them and many are ready to speak for you. Most of all Padraig.
Your death is a big deal, a seminal moment. The public display, the prescribed mourning behaviour: they sing, cry, link arms and lay flowers and symbolic cakes. You were, it seems, really bubbly and popular. And constantly described as a mother, even, bizarrely, as ‘a mother to us all.’ Does Tracey’s little Keith not count?
At the start, I championed you because of your bouncy uncomplicated manner. Initially, the viewers shared my take on you, but by the end of the second programme, it was clear that you ran the greatest risk of audience backlash. You showed an unquestioning satisfaction with yourself, like someone who had always got her own way, been cosseted, protected, and admired.
One viewer put it well: you were tone-deaf, but thought you were in perfect tune. I had reckoned that your shallowness would pass for charm; your resort to cliché would hold no threat. But I had not reckoned with the strange shifts of public preference that Maggie warned me about. As is true of us all, your apparent strength, Susan, turned out to be your most costly weakness. You were too familiar. Without an overt social handicap, you seemed proofed against the kind of stings and buffets the others had known. Because you were coiffed and frosted, you irritated and, of course, you had been selected for precisely that, to be trying. But for the same reason, Brendan and myself thought you would be well able to handle Maggie’s slights.
Please forgive my bluntness, but I used to think if there was a corny way to express something, you would unfailingly find it. Yet I believe you won the audience back. They came around to liking your idea of cupcakes. They are well able to make their own minds up about the TV personalities that we show them, that we fancy we create. Many surely resonated to your abandonment and the looming divorce. I overlooked so much, in my arrogance. I let my own reactions get mixed up with theirs. No wonder I often wished we were making a show with actors, who survive the suicide plunge, go home to their real families and care only for their paycheck and their next role.
I’ll be honest. I have no choice. I have no choice now that myself and Maggie – Maggie and myself – are all over the papers as hate figures, and you are all over the papers, too. ‘Tragic Susan’, ‘Susan’s Agony’, ‘We Miss our Mum So Much’.
I know you craved more popularity than The Fixers brought you. If you only knew: you have it now, though it has come a bit late. You have emerged, the only participant anyone will remember. As the weeks passed, I came to hope that The Fixers could be a milestone for Irish television, and, voilà, so it is. Maybe that strikes you as funny now. If so, you must have developed a sense of humour, because on the show I never saw it. But you’re now a saint – a martyr – so you probably don’t need one. Overnight, you’ve been canonised, as the public find qualities that they never noticed first time around. It now seems you were the favourite from the start. It made for great TV, that you were so different from Maggie. She black-haired and you blonde, she cosmopolitan and you suburban, she an academic and you a housewife.
The coliseum aspect to the show brought the audience to her side, not yours, but now it works the other way round. Tormentor and victim change places. People en masse are cruel, sadistic, unforgiving, not fair or decent, and easily shift their loathing to a new target. Maggie is cast as diva turned villain, with a glance that chilled.
Susan, you seemed at first too like our audience, lacking trauma or disappointment to live down or to flaunt. Yet in the end, not to be crude about it, you scooped the publicity. And you deserve it, Susan. You outdid the others – all hailed as ‘brave’ – in actually making a journey, trying something new, taking a huge risk. You did it all. I wonder where you are now. Of course you can’t hear me. But I need to let you know that I had no inkling of what you were going through. That’s all I can say to make amends. In a minute, I’ll be apologising to you for my part in the offence that was done by The Fixers. I am really sorry, but I would feel queasy to strike that note. Here I agree with Maggie. Pat apologies are now de rigueur. Tony Blair apologised for the Famine, murderers apologise to the families of their victims. Daft. Empty. How could that help? And yet I’m saying: Susan, I apologise for how our show served you so cruelly, even if it probably didn’t prompt you to drive into the river. Now that’s said, do I feel better? I don’t, not really. What I’m really hoping to feel is that you’ve forgiven me. And that Maggie and you are quits. For now the three of us are shackled together, in the public mind, in the roundup of the year’s news, in the sociological studies that will follow. The show promised that the participants would find their true selves, and also that they would change. As Damian pointed out, these boasts are contradictory, but you somehow combined them in the enigma of your death. You really did what the bumf about the show promised. I’m humbled to ponder how yours just might have been an act of complete autonomy, of self-invention, that trumped us all. I wouldn’t have believed that you would have dared to steer your own life, at once to change and to uncover your true self, but it’s for sure that only with you did reality break through our scripting and our manipulating. I’d give a lot to know whether it was an accident or a gesture. In any case, it has taken you on to another plane. Your plunge, as the papers call it, ensured that you will be remembered as a martyr of sincerity.
Writing to you brings up, bizarrely, the question of whether I believe in an afterlife, a remnant of my childhood. Not something I expected to be exploring at this stage. I’d give a lot to know whether you know or care about what’s going on down here on earth, as the catechism calls it.
I don’t know how to sign off. Any of the usual greetings (take care, talk soon, so long, love, kind regards), are too full of black humour, even for me.
So let me just say: I take off my hat to you. I’ll never forget you Susan.
I read the letter back, and put it aside. I didn’t burn it. It came with me to Sevilla, a document for my book.
In Ireland, a news story (the Corrib Gas controversy, the outbreak of mad cow disease, repeated and reheated over weeks snags our attention, becomes the only subject of conversation till it just as abruptly recedes.
I caught the last item on the evening news: Padraig, now the messenger about all things Fixer-related.
‘Let’s get a close-up on my lapel.’ He leaned forward as the camera moved tight against his blazer to show us a small enamel badge, unmistakably cupcake shaped, with tiny fluted folds and a swollen puffy top.
‘These are made by an Irish craftsman. I’ve chosen pink, but as you see, there’s a range of lovely colours. Just like the cakes.’ He pointed at a display case of badges in red, blue, yellow, mauve and green.
‘If you’d like to honour Susan’s memory, buy and wear a badge. They’re available from newsagents and gift shops all over the country. Why not show you care? A percentage of the price will go to the Susan Reynolds Fund. All the details available after the programme and on our new website.’
Susan’s miniature cupcake was the latest in of a series of lapel badge statements that add up to a social history of Ireland. My parents had worn neither Pioneer pin nor Fáinne, but some of their neighbours did, and our gym teacher wore both. In the seventies, in front of the GPO, competing collectors shook boxes, presenting the Easter Lily in stick-on or pinned-on formats. A marker of identity. Only once had I seen the tiny, strangely troubling pro-life feet. A rarity, by now, probably a collector’s item.
The cupcake badges were to be tokens of apology. Like the stuck or pinned Easter Lily, they also spelled out belonging, confirmed the wearer as someone who cared. The cupcake vogue and its promise of atonement kept Susan’s name in constant circulation. What became known as The Susan Effect loomed sometimes in my dreams, like a huge wheel, which raised the dead Susan, and brought low the living Maggie. The great wheel of chance, famous in Renaissance thinking.
The nature of Susan’s victimhood was transformed: she was now enthroned as an astute businesswoman, who had hit on a really good idea, even if she wasn’t able – or as Padraig said darkly, not facilitated – to present it convincingly. What he called product – and something larger – her brand, Sunbake, had once made her easy to attack, to ridicule. Now it assured her superiority. That Maggie had been so spectacularly wrong about the cupcake venture stood as another mark against her, made her seem out of touch, flat-footed. The modernity, the fearless realism we had prided ourselves on, now looked ugly, exploitative and shoddy.
Padraig wanted no half-measures in the memorialising of Susan.
‘Hold cupcake parties with Susan’s recipes, from our website, and donate the proceeds to the Fund. Cathal, it was said, had left to his children the choice of which charity should be the beneficiary. Ciara was a fan of collie dogs and suggested the Border Collie Rescue Fund. The coffers of this small body were suddenly swelled with donations at a rate that allowed them to rescue many more collies than could be accommodated. Then funds had to be diverted to providing accommodation, in a custom-built kennels on the road to Ticknock.
The launch of the Susan memorial became a kind of shadow event – a virtual version of ‘the launch she never got to organise’ for which ‘she had lots of creative ideas’ – and propelled Padraig into yet another phase in his career. He was the keeper of Susan’s flame, of her memory. (‘A great girl, a real lady, passionate about her business.’) He featured in an alternative version of the story according to which no one on the show had really supported Susan, no one except him. I admired how Padraig could, sincerely, as I believed, concoct a history. Then I reflected. It’s easy. Maggie and I had done the same.
In one fashion boutique in Portobello they’ve started selling cupcakes, side by side with multi-hued tights and tiny skirts.
For me, they’re a special kind of artefact. post-modern, all improbable playful colours.
People are bringing cupcakes to dinner parties instead of wine.
It’s cool to send a little box of two for Valentine’s Day. A change from flowers.
Healthier than chocolate eggs at Easter.
Am I alone in feeling that they’re really sexist confections?
We’ve commissioned a range in our company logo.
They’re eerie: they look as if they’d glow in the dark.
They‘re just a small affordable luxury, what’s the big deal? What is all the fuss about?
There’s a new vocabulary: frosting.
The luxury range features fresh vanilla from Madagascar.
The gift boxes have colour-coded segments.
In their window cupcake displays, some shops are going for serried ranks, ranged according to colour; others insert them into small spirals of wire, like coloured blossoms on a little tree.
The colour theme is important.
We have to honour one of our own.
Nicholas’ progress in karate has been spectacular. He’s a brown first dan belt.
‘The only belt I know about is a black one. How near is that?’
‘At my dojo–’ he stopped. ‘My club… you can only become a black belt at sixteen. And I’ve still to get the brown, second dan belt…’ He looked like he had more to say. He did. ‘Maggie sent me a book.’
‘Oh, which one?’ I asked, though I already knew.
‘What did you think of it?’
‘It’s quite weird. Really old-fashioned, but funny. And I liked what she wrote in the front.’
He retrieved the book from his bedroom and showed it to me. An inscription in her steep spiky handwriting, ending with : ‘Always remember, never forget: you were saved for something special.’
‘Do you have an address for her? What’s her phone number? I want to thank her.’
I ruffled his hair.
‘No, I don’t. Though I have a book with an inscription from her too.’
Please let him not ask anything else. Of course he will. Teenagers, bright and cruel, best suited to torment their elders, as Mao Tse-tung knew. Sure, Nicholas had got my version of The Fixers story from Gerard and Valerie, but what about the schoolyard?
‘Have you two split up?’
‘We’re not in touch right now.’
‘So you have split up?’
‘We might get back.’
‘When do you think?’
‘Maggie is cool.’
As if, for his part, he wouldn’t have let her go.
‘I’ve asked your parents about bringing you to Wimbledon. They’ve agreed, if your summer exam results are good.’
‘Deadly. But aren’t you going to Spain or somewhere?’
‘At the end of July. Sevilla’
‘I’ll miss you, Eoin.’
Standpoint by Damian O’Carroll
One hesitates to pry into the intimacy of a violent and tragic death, especially just now. True to today’s form, just when decorum calls for reserve, the airwaves resound to prattle. But our sense of compassion seems dulled, as the instinct to atone for injury is taking a bizarre form: the jejune cupcakes campaign. An appropriate communion ritual: all we can offer as a sacramental meal are these concoctions: luridly coloured, sickly. They threaten to contribute to the nation’s post-famine plagues of obesity and sugar-induced adrenal fatigue. The scientists tell us that homo sapiens has evolved to mistrust blue-coloured food, but the manufacturers of cupcakes –
(It felt as if every time he used the word ‘cupcakes’ he was putting it into quotes.)
– violate even this biological taboo. The Fixers relied on packaging pain for entertainment. Nothing has been learned, as now shame is packaged as consumption. Public remorse traces the same safe dramatic arc as the programme did: we can be purged of our guilt without feeling or thinking.
In a strange way, Damian was confirming what he had often disputed – that TV shows were a vehicle for important truths, didn’t only reflect, but also shaped, feelings and reactions, the culture in general. They feed off themselves.
It won’t be Damian’s last word on the subject of The Fixers. He’ll have to revisit the subject once the news comes out that I’m writing the story of it all. He’s my double, my shadow. I need him.
On the Tuesday night, with the city taken over by Semana Sancta I felt more in the know than a tourist, yet less of a local than ever. I secured a good view of the scene when, at about eleven, a giant float advanced into the tiny square. It moved forward on small shuffling feet, all that was visible of the army of bearers whose moves depended on the drumbeats of a military escort. Cued by the thud and rattle, the float paused, and a few small tough-bodied men slipped out from underneath. Neck pads had not saved them from fresh weals. From the crowd beside me, a man offered a cigarette, a woman a kiss, before they returned to the sweaty darkness. And the test. So low and narrow is the entrance to St Esteban that the costaleros, the float-bearers, must first drop to their knees. The crowd fell silent, the drumsticks laid crosswise, as the Virgin, alabaster robed in lace, shedding tears of wax, crowned with gold, flanked by huge candles and gilded lamps, swayed under the little humped doorway.
Walking behind the float, the penitents were closed by bright blue hoods into individual repentance, yet each marched in the company of his brotherhood. I didn’t need to see their faces. I knew they were my neighbours: respectable locals – pharmacists, publicans, newsagents, there to prove adherence to family and country, as well as plead for pardon from God. Does He yawn at the recital of so many commonplace sins? Mine at least is unusual. I fit into no brotherhood, yet I belong under one of these hoods. Like a snood pulled down over one’s eyes. If only it was enough to cleanse my offence, this public, yet anonymous, witness.
My business in Sevilla is penance, also, but it’s not a show, holy or otherwise. It’s Protestant, northern, private. I lie low, I write. Religiously. Now I am permitted to speak of what happened. I may dare to open the kitchen cupboard. The cockroaches will be like old friends: they could dance to that song, still a hit in Mexico when I was there: La Cucaracha. For days I couldn’t lose the sound of it. Of course, I was still jumping to it when I walked past Gerard and Daddy at the airport, and was nicknamed jumping bean, by Daddy, though Gerard would rather have said ‘space head’.
I feel them around me, all of them. The Fixers are closer than the kids on their fathers’ shoulders, the women with little cardboard periscopes. What would Breege have made of this spectacle? Breege with her hard shoes, her bushy hair, schooled to plainness, would have admired the adornments, yet might have felt unease, her loyalty to the Church torn.
And Tracey’s comment on the pointy hats would surely give me a fit of the giggles. Jacqueline would see no point in any of it: too slow.
Damian would salute it as authentic, the hard thrilling notes, a raw ritual – sensual and spiritual at the same time, ornate yet dour. Just his bag. And Susan? Not the Spain she was familiar with. She might have remarked how scruffy the floats would look in daylight. I have only what she showed me of herself when she was here, the photos she had shared with us, and I dismissed most of that. There won’t be any more.
Maggie is gone, too, but I know exactly what she’d have said. ‘Wot, no women? Of course, we’ve less to repent of. Or do the guys just want to keep the velvet and lace for themselves?’
Standing on the footpath, I thought of my own remorse, and my cover, not a pointy hood, but a plain existence, persevering like a slightly hard-up native teacher of English. Since I accepted the publisher’s offer, I have been writing every evening at the kitchen table, after my late class. The publishers want me to tell it all, to be the first to reveal how The Fixers saga unrolled.
It wasn’t long after Susan’s death, in fact at a scarcely seemly interval, that the publisher called me. The sum they proposed was seriously tempting, as compensation – I had suffered – and they would give me scope to explain how three rapid missteps pitched us headlong down the slope.
That is, like my claims for the show, complete bullshit. Who am I kidding? It’s really to feed the public hunger, a re-visitation of the smoking ruins, where the maimed are still wandering. In writing an insider’s account, I know I won’t change the public’s view. I’ll endorse it. My book will feed the voyeurism. Our timing is perfect, the publisher tells me, because we are resurrecting the story just when it might otherwise begin to fade from memory. It would be out in time to feed the vapid Christmas market, just before more TV shows green lit for broadcast in New Year, start all over again. Another S shaped curve, I suppose. Andrea always said it’s best when one kicks off immediately from another.
From here, in Sevilla, I can listen in to the various factions: some will see my composing it as a kind of betrayal, whilst many others will reach eagerly for my account, hoping to unveil the enigma of Maggie, through an untangling of backroom stories, details of conflict, alliances and splits. The newspapers will compete for the rights to serialise extracts in advance of publication. The public, the friends, who will sneer at my exploiting the tragedy and, adding to the controversy, will be most hungry to hear it all.
There needs to be a chronicle, and I can serve in the humble role of messenger, the one who arrives to tell the story, to bear witness, when the great ones have left the stage, baffled and bleeding.
No. More bullshit. I’m not a humble witness who has watched with horror from a distance: Damian is probably nearer to that. I am one of the proud blinded ones, who swaggered and trumpeted the impact of a TV show, how it could be realer than real. The way to make it real was for people to suffer.
The drum roll ended. I’ve been told that every year the Virgin avoided collision with the doorway, but only just. As happens every year, the outcome of this ordeal, this near brush with disaster, raised a cheer, muted, but strong. The relief spilled out as a woman launched, apparently spontaneously, into a sung greeting to the Virgin – a saeta – from a balcony. Wild wooing and reproach.
The crowd was stilled. Before they started to move to the next venue, I turned away. As I walked back to my apartment, I was lighter than I’d been for the past two years. I was now suddenly quite sure about calling the publisher. Next morning, they’re going to hear that I’m turning them down. Once into the kitchen, with the light on, I’ll reach for the handle of the cockroach cupboard.
Damian suggested O’Meara’s for our meeting, and I found him there, sitting in a strong beam of summer sunlight that spilled from the large window and danced in the depths of the glass of white wine on the little iron table in front of him. I too like to locate myself to see everyone who comes in. He stood up with a near bow and shook my hand. His own felt a bit upholstered, not exactly plump. His movements were sprightly: oddly reminiscent of a bulky Marcel Marceau, if such were possible. The voice was a bigger surprise. I did a kind of appraisal, as if of a wine: always ringing sonorous on the page, in person it was weak, with a harsh edge, a faint midlands’ colour. I don’t know why, but that discovery evened things up between us. It was as if I had finally noticed the bandy legs of a girl who had dumped me, or that a famous pianist bit his nails.
With his amply draped coat and large face, Damian was a poor man’s Wilde. A Wilde for a meaner time. I took in his white shirt buttoned to the neck, no tie.
‘You dress like the big farmers who take their aperitifs on Calle Sierpes,’ I said.
He looked pleased. ‘The big farmers, you say? With acres of olives and grapes and so forth. Why that street?’
‘They like to stay near the headquarters of their Association. Maybe keeping an eye on each other.’
Before replying, he stroked the outside of his glass and watched as the beads of moisture disappeared. ‘Always wise, when in the same line of work. What do they drink?’
‘Fino, maybe La Ina,’ I lifted my own glass. ‘I’ve kept up the habit at this time of day.’
‘So it was Sevilla that you chose? And she joined you there, Miss Vernon?’
Miss Vernon. He was summoning a different person from my Maggie.
‘No, she didn’t come.’
I felt every second of the silence. He did pauses well.
‘As for me,’ he said, in that off-putting voice. ‘I would have placed her in another part of the Mediterranean world, the Cote d’Azur. I prefer the term Riviera myself, and the period it summons up. Like the woman in that old song, you know: “where do you go to…my lovely”’
I looked puzzled, but he persisted.
‘I’m sure you know it.’
‘I’ve a vague recollection. The singer sank without a trace, afterwards. His name sounded kind of Nordic or Danish.’
‘Peter Sarstedt. British actually. Though his name hailed from India.’
‘All very late sixties, Damian. Before my time. And Maggie’s.’
He swelled in girth and voice. ‘But as you know, people can belong, spiritually, to a different period from the one they actually live in, and that is hers. And St Tropez, Juan Les Pins, that’s her country. I think of her as keeping barely ahead of being found out, just on top of a role as a commonplace version of Brigitte Bardot or Sophia Loren. Hers would surely have beena small sad tale, though more touching than the fake dramas of The Fixers’ participants. The Gardaí told me they never did get to interview her. But do you know she changed her name? She was once a Cora. I wonder what history she was trying to hide.’
What a condescending, self-important little shite. Always the arbiter.
‘Don’t even think of patronising her, cut it out.’
I rose with an air of indignation, but he knew we were only starting and so did I. In reality, I was wincing at his take on Maggie, the way he rumbled her and felt for her at the same time. If I was fighting back, it was to defend us both. And The Fixers. ‘She saw the show as something real, that mattered, that honoured everyday human spirit. Sure, she changed her name: she believed in making her own destiny.’
The waiter arrived with two more finos. ‘Everything all right, Sir?’
‘Yes, I just need to stretch.’
‘A name isn’t just a brand,’ Damian said. ‘It has deep connections to who we are, it’s a lodestar.’
I shrugged, shook my head. ‘Yes, but we have the choice to set our own direction. Maggie believed that we can, and should, erase the marks of negative experience and reinvent ourselves. I find that very valid, and if it involves a different name, so what?’
Her arguments were rising freely to my lips. He looked at me sadly. I grasped the back of my chair.
‘Just that she didn’t succeed. No one can. The prattle about ‘starting over’ – I could hear him sound the quotation marks. He would never use the little scratching gesture that Susan loved – ‘It comes from the Protestant heresy, that we can be born again by our own efforts. As impossible as lifting ourselves by our own bootstraps.’
‘Oh, spare me your Catholic pessimism, that we’re all stuck in a vale of tears. The other three women are proving you wrong.’
What he said next made me sit down again. There was no sarcasm in his voice, just a serious edge. It was as though he and I were looking at two sides of the same thing.
‘I would have liked to see more of her and know what has happened to her. I managed to find out a little about her past, but nothing about where she is now. The poignancy in your programme was all hers, of course.’
I answered at once. I didn’t want to leave many pauses. I hated the bitter fact that I also didn’t know what had happened to Maggie.
‘You seemed more exercised about our duty of care to the vulnerable.’
‘Exactly. Who was the most vulnerable? And where was the only touch of reality?’
‘Look,’ I said. ‘When people agree to surrender to the cameras, they cross a threshold. The rest of us let go of them. We can travel no further, any more than we can really join someone in an ICU.’ I paused.‘I’m kind of baffled anyway. Maggie was a consummate media performer. You wrote very harshly about her, and you’re suddenly all solidarity.’
‘I meant every word of it, but I also saw her as a tragic figure, compromised and caught in a world of canned laughter and tears, contrived cliff-hangers and denouements. The programme wasn’t a fairy tale; it was the theatre of cruelty.’
‘Those two things aren’t so different.’
‘In any case, I play the role of jester, stinging and soothing in turn.’
‘Come on, Damian, it was more than that for you. Did you fancy yourself as the author of another J’Accuse?’
If Maggie was tragic, that made me merely comic. I shifted to more solid ground from which to land a blow. ‘My nephew Nicholas is fourteen. I want him to grow up in a more open and spacious Ireland than I did, without the overheated atmosphere of shame that you seem to appreciate, and now miss.’
‘All very desirable, but I fear it means substituting marble with pasteboard and tinsel. A resonant mirage for a tinny one, one vantage point for another – and less bracing – one. It doesn’t serve children to raise them in a bubble of false entitlement and false security, to deflect any encounter with disappointment. Children are given too much say in the family, no wonder they take advantage. I was talking recently to a friend, a leader in his profession, who struggles to become au fait with his son’s taste in music, and is flattered if he can accompany the boy to concerts. The father is, of course, paying. We must serve children by enabling them to overcome adversity. That won’t happen if we yield to their every demand.’
‘I could refute you and that tired old conservative line, but I don’t think I’ll bother,’ I said.
He looked attentively at me, and said nothing for a few minutes. I turned to my drink. I couldn’t stand the silence any longer, and ended up drinking too fast.
‘You confirmed me by making so much of the show’s impact. Who else got so much mileage out of it?’
He took a sip of wine with a scarcely noticeable shrug.
‘I’ve missed a few months of your columns. What– ’
‘What am I exercised by these days?’ He cut in, smiled, spreading his hands wide.
‘Oh, our sudden mysterious prosperity throws up many possibilities. Bio politics, Irish accents, the place of animals, history in the curriculum, the naming of housing estates, children’s stories, the urge to please everyone. Wherever I look, I find mileage, as you call it. And I’m counting on your next TV programme, look forward to more jousting.’
Absurdly, I felt flattered. ‘I imagine it’s tough to craft a column out of your views week after week, in a way that’ll hold onto your fans and bring in new ones.’
He wasn’t going to make any comment. He stood up and slipped off his coat.
‘I must say I was impressed by your guts in standing aside from the cupcake atonement stampede. Just when you were fitting, even if briefly, with the mainstream, you stayed quirky and contrarian.’
A tiny bow of acknowledgment. ‘There’s no fresh air if everyone sees things the same way and gives importance to the same things. It has its pleasures, the role of jester.’
‘My next show’ll be a hit, anyway,’ I insisted. ‘Like The Fixers was. The public sniff things out: they’ll crown it, or they won’t. They’re right, whatever they think.’
‘They think what they think, being right is another matter.’
Now I had the chance to say what had long been inside me. ‘From the start, you took the view that The Fixers challenged something fundamental in Ireland.’
He tossed back the white wings of his hair. ‘That’s overstating it. By its own premise, the programme pulled its punches.’
I was getting fed up of his pontificating, offering the last word on my work. ‘In what way exactly, Damian?’
‘It demanded that all the effort come from the individuals, fixed them up to return to an unchanged environment. So, loading the odds against any really radical results. Their real pain – and it was real –, was processed, flattened and bleached. All was formulaic, ready made. Nothing was said that particularly fitted with their individuality.’
‘It was light and gentle compared with shows put on elsewhere, so in that sense, very Irish.’
He looked at me with a slow shake of the head. ‘The times we live in celebrate the phoney,’ he said.
I put down my glass, afraid the hand tremor would come back. ‘Do you know the line from Beckett: “You’re on earth, aren’t you? There’s no cure for that.” Or have you ever considered moving to another planet?’
‘I’d love to have played my part in the building of our state,’ he said.
‘Perhaps you do. Your column is read by thousands of people. Our state is still being built. Regardless, that challenge is still there. For both of us.’
As if he hadn’t heard me, he went on. ‘Those were real times, not bogus or self-serving.’
‘I like it, our now.’ I said. ‘And one of the things I like is that we name difficulties, we don’t deny them, or cover them up.’
At his look, I started bidding for approval. ‘Enough. You’re forever claiming that the media is a kind of froth, but if it really has no influence, what honour or worth is there in your life’s work? What does it amount to?’
I knew that here I was revealing my own worries. It was leaking out, how suddenly, wildly, I envied him, that he had found a way to use the media to advance reality and truth as he saw it, to be influential. I told him about admiring his outline of Irish cynicism, and the shift in Ireland from the hurt to the smart variant. Not that we’ve left the hurt behind. I lay somewhere on that spectrum, but where? Damian had scaled and named a vantage point from which to view it, and all the shifts and snares of the world, on another plane. Call it savvy.
I needed to bid to keep us in touch before he ended the conversation. ‘I collect movie posters from the thirties and forties,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you call over to take a look at them?’
‘Yes, I’d love to come up and see your etchings. Tell me, what are your own favourites?’
‘Well, I have Jimmy Cagney in Public Enemy, Flash Gordon, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Oh, and several different versions of the Wizard of Oz.’
‘Wonderful. All the work we do is about façade and backdrop, isn’t it? I don’t know of a better summing up, that there’s really no wizard.’
And no witch, I thought.
‘Damian, there’s something else I want to discuss with you.’
I needed to keep him around, but not too near: better not see too much of your shadow twin, your double. Having him as antagonist was as important as having support from others. And at our next meeting, I’d make him an offer: I could put his name forward to the publishers to write a Fixers narrative, if he’d like. His take will would be very different, he wouldn’t be using what I’ve already written. But I’ll be truly free. And the public will get a further shot of Fixers lore: a fix of The Fixers, one might say.
Damian stood up, and swept on his roomy coat. ‘A great pleasure. I’ll ring you next week,’ he said, and walked out into the sunny street. It occurred to me that never once had he used my name.
I didn’t recognise the guy in the glass booth at the entry. He checked my windscreen. No badge there now, not for ages.
‘Who are you coming to see?’
‘Andrea O’Dwyer.’ I felt I needed to add, ‘I’ve an appointment.’
‘The visitors’ car park is over there, Sir, around the back.’
The trees have grown: all the grounds more mature.
I was looking forward to seeing Andrea again, and applauding how her tenacity had paid off in steady promotions. despite the huge step back. She’s planning a Fixers five year reunion for next year. To serve as detox, healing, closure. She tells me she has secured the support of Brendan’s successor and his agreement to involve me. Brendan’s name would now ring few bells. He and Peter took retirement packages at a decent interval afterwards.
Andrea wants the reunion show to continue the debate that stemmed from Damian’s Standpoints: a selection of his columns commissioned by my former publishers. The centrepiece is an extended essay on media; his response to my invitation. It didn’t greatly surprise – or disappoint – me, that he didn’t want to write The Fixers book.
As I told Damian when I made him that offer, our three participants did get fixed. They changed. Maggie would certainly have been proud of them. Proud of how Breege returned to her birthplace in Ballymote, bought a small house and took on a lead role in the local Toastmasters. Her contacts there helped her to secure a job as a trainer. How Jacqueline was promoted at the bank, stayed in her hometown, but now commutes to her job at bank HQ in Dublin. She has started to call herself Jackie. From The Fixers there resulted many offers of dates and relationships. As Equality Officer at the bank, she has set about drawing up policies on respect and diversity. And how Tracey met a man on the FÁS course and how they were now living together and bringing up Keith. Even better, thanks to Dymphna, Tracey became a fashion buyer, and ended up working in one of the Henry Street stores she used to steal from.
The Fixers three showed less change: Dymphna became a Colour Me Beautiful representative in Cork. After a decent interval, during which he wrote a book on saving and investment, John resumed his practice, offering support to start-up companies. Morgan moved to Vancouver, where, with a new partner in both life and business, he made a series of exercise videos.
They’re still buying cupcakes in Ireland, but the memory of Susan has dimmed. The bungalow stood empty for some years, till its associations with the show had died down.
I never saw or heard from Maggie. But over the last few years, at odd moments, especially after arriving late in the evening in a city new to me, I have the strange impression that around the next corner, if I turn right rather than left, sit down at this terrace instead of that, I may feel her gaze on me. Still questing, still alit, still capable of unmanning me. And at those moments, I would give anything, (even what I treasure most, my hard-won happy domesticity), to know she is near.
I’m counting on attending more academic conferences, and there’s a good one in Brisbane next year. I want to be out of Ireland when The Fixers reunion happens. After I deliver my paper, TV Memoir As Release, I plan to spend some time touring Australia, and looking around, to see what I can see. Or who.
I am indebted to many people for generous help in the writing of this novel. If I have omitted anyone, please forgive.
In early days, Mia Gallagher, Siobhan Campbell and Dearbhla Keating lent much expertise. The members of Airfield Writers’ Group and my Analytic group were attentive and at times challenging comrades.
The editors of Cyphers gave valuable support.
My family – Geraldine, Stephen, Iseult, Tom, Ciarán, Marcos, Sinead, Cintha, Reg, Anna, Luan and Clara – listened patiently and cheerfully.
Elizabeth Hatz, Clíona Dempsey, Dairine Dempsey, Eli Keery and Geoff Power filled in gaps in my knowledge.
Frank’s spirit continues to give me warmth and brightness.
I owe a huge debt to the savvy, humour and skill of my editor Josephine Hughes.
And to Neville, for sharing his wisdom about books and people.
An extract under the working title, Emerge, was published in Cyphers Autumn/Winter 2011
About Pauline Hall
Pauline Hall was born in Dublin, Ireland. Having spent time in France, Italy, Spain and the United States, she returned to live and work in Ireland. She now writes full-time, both fiction and poetry.
Her first novel, ‘Grounds’, inspired by both her time in France in the 1950s, and a period at an Ivy League college in the USA in the 1960s, was published by Brandon Books in 1983.
She has, among other writings, published fiction, prose, poetry, reviews and commentary in the Irish Times, The Dubliner, The Dublin Review of Books, Cyphers, Stony Thursday, The Mews, Encounters and the bilingual English-Spanish online journal Estudios Irlandeses.
An active member of Airfield Writers’ Group, her deep understanding of human change is reflected in her contemporary poetry and fiction.
Other works by Pauline Hall
‘Rathmines and the Rising People and Places’ – a guidebook (2016)
‘Fictional Treatments of the Easter Rising’ – article series (Dublin Review of Books, 2015-16)
‘The Cream of the Milk’ – illustrated clerihews on famous and infamous Irish women (2013)
‘Network Directory of Women in Management’ (Editor; 1989)
‘Agents of Change, The Manager’s Guide to Planning and Leading Change Projects’ (Co-written with Hilary Maher; Oaktree Press, 1998)
‘Grounds’ – a novel (Brandon Books, 1983)
Contact Pauline Hall
Please email if you would like to contact Pauline Hall, or find out about further releases.
“Chance, choice, change. Life is played out in that space. Start with any one of these words, and you bring in the other two.” TV producer, Eoin Doherty, returns to Dublin from London in the early 2000s with his career in freefall. He has one opportunity to salvage his career: to sell his idea for a prime-time reality TV show to an unsuspecting nation. A chance encounter with showbiz psychologist Maggie Vernon leads to her becoming the co-creator of his show and, soon, his lover. In Eoin’s eyes, The Fixers is ‘just a little women makeover thing’ - four troubled Irish women being coached on TV to emerge into a new personal and financial independence - but it’s a new direction for Irish television, and one that he hopes will open the door into the groundbreaking TV work he really wants to do. Maggie also has a professional and personal interest in human reinvention and renewal, but to her, The Fixers becomes a chance not just to dig up the past of the show’s participants, but her own, and ultimately for her to take a very public revenge. A journey into the culture of instant celebrity, Eoin Doherty and The Fixers explores the limits of human reinvention and the inescapable shadows of our past.