When you hear the phrase, “Subtropical paradise,” Longford is probably not what springs to mind. As children, we were taken to Center Parcs, over in the UK. Thirty-degree weather year-round, with palm trees, pools, slides and rides, all housed beneath a glass dome. There’d been great excitement in the family following an announcement of a new landmark Irish resort, only now it would largely benefit my sister’s little lad. All the same I was feeling nostalgic. My wife wasn’t coming.
On day one, without bothering to unpack our bags, we headed to the dome for hours of swimming and sunbathing. Saddling me with an infant nephew, my sister and her husband walked away, hand in hand. They looked relieved to steal even half an hour to themselves. I resented their freckled Eskimo kisses and skipping steps off to the jacuzzi. A glass of wine wouldn’t have hurt. Of course, the imitation bamboo bar didn’t carry prosecco, never mind champagne. I eyed up a little carton of apple juice poking its ear out of the corner of the cooler bag, but couldn’t bring myself to disturb the little one. I considered the bloated bodies and sad eyes I’d see in the supermarket next week. Those young parents living without the luxury of a holiday like this.
I was prepared for Christopher to start bawling the second my sister was out of eyeshot, but he didn’t. With my hands under his armpits, I bounced him gently up and down, muttering baby gibberish. Elastic strings of dribble descended from his mouth. They were pure and transparent. Like him. Looking in his clear, guiltless eyes I found some hope to quell that nagging uneasiness.
When he started to whimper, I put his downy head on my shoulder and rocked him. I felt the eyes of a flock of fathers on me as they rocked their little criers and imagined they must be thinking, “This guy hasn’t a fucking clue what’s ahead of him”.
In unison, their faces softened and rearranged with a concentrated indifference, their growling arched eyebrows conformed back into flattened bushy lines, in poor attempts not to cross…a line. A group of teenage bikini bums passed, and the fathers’ split-second double takes passed under the subtle scrutiny of their ever-vigilant spouses, keeping score and collecting ammo for the invariable fights to come, who were otherwise occupied breast feeding second sons. Every sucked-in gut flopped back out, as the parade of teens turned the corner, heading towards the lazy river.
I thought about Portugal. Heather’s bum in her black bikini, on our first bit of real sun away together, where I’d proposed on the beach, like a fucking dickhead. We’d mused about how in our first six months together, we’d achieved a level of connection that other couples took years to get to or never achieved. It felt right at the time. That was the last I saw of it, the bikini that is. I recall that for subsequent aquatic adventures, like at Seapoint with her sisters, the charity swim on Christmas day in Sandycove, and even a mid-week spa day in Seafield, the one piece had resurfaced. There’s nothing inherently unsexy about a one piece. But I had to conclude that the same certain behaviors one can comfortably engage in abroad, you might never dream of doing at home. Then I sang to Christopher,
My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through
Holding Christopher in my arms, I executed light-footed pirouettes, feeling the warmth of his skin on mine. One tiny hand gripped my chest hair and his breathing calmed as he began to fade. This tender display attracted much attention from a cluster of mothers. The rigid smiles they wore were more a reflex than genuine emotional response before each face rearranged to focus on her respective husband’s hairy tattooed shoulders. Christopher’s small head on my own shoulder, his drool cooled, before running down my back.
My sister and her husband returned right around lunchtime and passed me a cold beer. But when I handed the little guy back, he reached for me with his wrinkly, doughy hand, and I heard myself say, “He was no trouble at all.”
I must have read the same page ten times. Peeling myself off the plastic pool lounger each time I reached for a sip of beer, I became hypnotized by their rituals. The unpacking of sandwich bags, the spreading of butter, the squeezing of baby food and the spilling of apple juice. Without a word exchanged, but informed by nods and glances, their Formula 1-style, precision clean-ups ensued. All that munching, crunching, screaming, and soothing seemed like white noise to these parents. Watching the breathless fathers’ pregnant bellies heaving made me feel ill again. Those teens were parading past us once more, which prompted the tired women to brave pleasant expressions and adjust the colorful cover ups with which they concealed their sagging tummies, stretchmarks, and cesarean scars.
Heather was away on a work trip to Amsterdam. Her company holding its annual conference, essentially a glorified, networking piss-up justified by some scattered workshops and team-building exercises.
Things had not been good between us. Our relationship strained by living married life in the box-room of my parents’ house. The first-time buyers’ lament pulsated through every minute of every day as we awaited construction to begin on our forever-home, which at that juncture was nothing more than a giant puddle. The show house had seduced us. It would be worth the wait, we thought. However, the reflection in that puddle had turned to that of those who were no longer having fun.
Heather had fun when she went out with her work friends. On the rare occasion I was invited along, I’d see her smile, laugh, cackle even, and look beautiful. But, whenever our eyes met across the bar, her entire demeanor changed. As if my face forced her to forget who she was. Only on the taxi ride home would her cheekbones rise again, in the glow of her phone, as she scrolled through her past.
After the subtropical paradise, we went to the fake village for an authentic Italian dinner. My mother inhaled her wine, while Dad picked his teeth. I batted a half-eaten meatball back and forth across a stain of sauce, just to watch my nephew’s eyes swing like a cat’s. Back at the cabin, and much to my brother’s annoyance, I went to bed early. Well, after one whisky over a hand of cards. This left him to suffer our half-cut, maudlin parents, solo. I heard my bleary mother slur about how proud she was of him. Dad’s face would’ve reddened, and his gaze grown more distant, as he mused about being sixteen in the sixties, batin’ around on his Honda 50.
“He’s probably just missing Heather.” My mother speculated, in what she imagined was a hushed voice. I could almost feel her spit landing intermittently in my brother’s ear.
At last in bed, thanks to the crappy signal on my phone and the distracting chatter from the kitchen, I couldn’t get hard enough to knock one out. Not even conjuring a casual exchange with an attractive mother I’d seen by the pool, leading to an impromptu segue to one of those convenient family changing cubicles. Close, but it was no use.
“You were so, so protective of your little sister when she was young.” My mother crooned, slapping away at what I assumed to be my brother’s thigh. Tossing and turning, I imagined Heather out at a bar in Amsterdam, after a long day of corporate icebreakers, awkward talks and wandering thoughts. Who was she looking at? Probably someone less pessimistic. Taller too. Younger, in better shape, and clean-shaven. Maybe with a man-bun. His eyes would be all over Heather. She’d laugh and push the sandy blonde curls out of her face. In skin-tight jeans, he’d see she had hips and an arse to die for.
We were fatigued. Both of us. Was a good fucking something she wanted? Maybe she would come back from her trip in better spirits after having that thrill, being tossed around a hotel room with the vigour I once had. She knew full well I’d never ask her. Cheating men always bring flowers; what was I to think if she returned with a Toblerone, bottle of Scotch and a big hug?
I’d heard nothing from Heather all day. But that didn’t stop me from checking my phone every few minutes. I flicked away through our wedding album in the hope of something rousing; she really did look beautiful in her dress. But nothing came, bar a few streaking tears. My brother stumbled in, with his signature simultaneous belching and farting. So, I rolled over, turning my back on him, and pretended to be asleep. The waft took me back to the bedroom we’d shared as kids. His heavy breathing somehow soothed me, and made me glad he was there. I felt less alone and managed to drift off, dreaming something I’d never remember.
The following day we’d booked in to play tennis. We each did our part taking turns to rock Christopher’s stroller back and forth. My Metallica-styled rendition of The Wheels on the Bus got him giggling and he squirmed as I ate some of his delicious animal shaped biscuits. My brother-in-law Karl looked visibly uncomfortable as he restrained himself from admonishing me. But then again, Karl couldn’t tell me off in front of his in-laws, just as I couldn’t punch him in the throat on every occasion, he said something condescending. Or called me “Bud.”
On the tennis court adjacent to ours, a five-aside soccer match was in progress. Boys versus girls. Judging by what I saw, there was obviously a transaction happening. I gathered the parents in each goal had taken one for the team, herding a crew of kids for the afternoon. This freed up other parents for some afternoon delight, while perhaps later, the goalies could have a date night. They looked like they needed a nap themselves, but in their laboured cheers and smiles I sensed some hope.
Sweat poured off the bear-like dad in the goal nearest me. For a moment, I pitied him, doubting what energy he’d have for later that night. But when I looked down at his wife, it was myself I pitied, as she turned out to be that attractive mom from the day before. The one by the pool.
With each successive smash, great return or strong serve that drew cheers from our side, she was paying attention and deciding I wasn’t half bad. Untying the jumper from around her waist, she tossed it aside to show off a Lycra sheathed bum and thighs. I read this display of plumage as a sign. I watched her ask someone to swap positions, take a turn guarding the goal, so she could hoof a series of goals past her bewildered husband. I could feel her glancing my way, when a timer sounded indicating one minute remained before the hour booked on both courts was up.
Fingers clawed through the chain link fence, from eager tikes impatient to enter for scheduled fun. As the clock wound down, both within and beyond that fence, kid’s screams reached a fever pitch. In one last effort to underscore the girls’ dominance over the boys, this determined woman took a cross from her daughter down on her chest and volleyed the ball into the top right-hand corner of the goal. Pulling her top up over her
head, she exposed a well-filled sports bra, flat stomach, and on the small of her back, a single Scorpio symbol tattoo. Origin: Ibiza, circa 200. To the applause of all those watching, she led a flying-V of girls in a victory lap around the pitch, singing “Champion-ay, champion-ay, oh-ay, oh-ay, oh-ay.” As she pulled her top back on, our eyes locked through her tousled hair, and the final clap was mine.
We packed up our things, all leaving the courts at the same time.
“Pretty feckin’ impressive out there!” I said to her as she passed, “Half expected a power-slide, but that AstroTurf is a bitch”.
Her husband had gone ahead with an arm around a sulking son. But now craning his neck, he called to her, “C’mon Ciara, let’s get this lot cleaned up.”
She smiled at me and said, “Oh, even if it were grass, I wouldn’t be doing much sliding at my age.”
“I dunno, you looked pretty good out there to me” I said, instantly regretting it.
Ciara laughed and said, “Thanks… I’d better catch up with that gang.” before jogging up to join her son and husband.
My bones ached, watching her walk away. As Ciara tied up her hair, the sun caught the lightly freckled back of her neck and I could almost taste the salt. Tugging on her husband’s sleeve, the little boy in a Liverpool jersey piped-up, pleading with a cute-hoor’s precariousness rarely perpetrated by their class, to his father.
“Please Damo, please!”
“Only the winners get ice-cream Johnny. Thems’ the rules,” declared his dad.
Only remembering this bet due to Johnny’s boldness, the rest of the boys swarmed, grabbing his hand here, snatching at his shirt tail there, and a chant broke out.
“Damo! Damo! Damo!”
He was loving it.
Ciara caught up with them to shoo the boys away and reassert a girls’ victory. Her husband slung his arm across her shoulders. after she’d wrapped her arm around his waist, without a glance backwards. But I could feel her feeling my eyes.
“C’mon Bud” my brother in-law called after me, breaking the spell, “We’ve a reservation at eight.” His presumptuous usage of “Bud” usually made my teeth grind. But in that moment, it barely affected me. I checked my phone. Nothing. I pictured Heather’s arse elevated. She’d be on a Segway, zooming around Amsterdam’s cobbled streets to see the sights, as part of a company sponsored scavenger hunt, led by Luuk, Daan, or some other handsome counterpart from the Dutch office. Heather’d have taken a selfie, eating a stroopwafel by the canal, before Google mapping the walking directions to Anne Frank’s house.
Gazing at the two grey ticks beside my day-old WhatsApp message to Heather that simply said, “I love you,” the likelihood that I’d been muted almost sent me into a state of panic. But I was distracted by Ciara’s shriek. Damo was tickling her, and a playful chase ensued. When she halted him with whips of her jumper, her flushed face was fucking gorgeous.
In those aerial shots you see in their TV ads, the Centre Parcs forest seems to span forever. But it’s really not that big. Everything is contained within an artificial central village and I was sure I’d see Ciara again. I found myself double-taking other women with similar body types, around the pool, from afar, or from behind. Figuring her daughter to be say, twelve, and her son maybe ten, I encouraged my family to book everything from archery, to kayaking, to feckin’ falconry. Any activities where she and her kids might be. I even volunteered to attend cupcake decorating class with my sister and Christopher when Karl wanted a break. But after spending more than a minute pondering the list and contemplating whether Ciara was more likely to gravitate toward Bollywood Dance or a Boogie Bounce, I drew the line. It was a slow week. One which passed painfully, and with no sight of her.
Our last dinner was at the fancy place on the lake, Café Rouge. I was surprised to see Ciara there and gratified when she noticed me. With a pleasant nod she passed our table, as her family was shown to theirs. Damo remained engrossed in his phone, the glow of which illuminated his stubbled jowl.
Wearing flawless make-up, Ciara looked perhaps only a few years older than me. Her faded Guns and Roses t-shirt could have been from the nineties; but was probably just a cool mom’s pick-up from Penney’s. In fact, Damo washed up well enough too. Belly hidden in an expensive-looking shirt, he was breathing easy, his thinning hair sculpted not without some expertise.
Detecting the residual rugged handsomeness Ciara would have been attracted to, back when he was sliding in tries at Blackrock, I wondered if she still saw him like that. Or whether it took a bottle of wine. Being seated a few tables down allowed me an uninterrupted view of both Ciara and Damo’s faces. I ordered a salad. When what I really wanted was the steak.
By dessert, he was scrolling endlessly on his phone again. It didn’t look like work. He wasn’t responding to critical emails. Damo didn’t type at all, and his eyebrows furrowed the way one might react to a series of surprising match scores. At one point, he even bit down on his tongue. Ciara contained her irritation by tilting her head to smile at passers-by, that and pushing that last profiterole around her plate.
When Damo excused himself to make a call, he left Ciara a parting kiss on the cheek. Through the back of his shirt, a thin line of sweat had bled, and as he lumbered out of the restaurant, I wondered if I’d be able to take him down in a headlock.
When Damo left, Ciara momentarily rummaged in her bag, then headed towards the back of the restaurant, clutching what appeared to be a pack of Marlboro Lights. After nicking my brother’s cigarette pack from the breast pocket of his coat, I followed her out of the dining room, and past the kitchen, to the smoking area.
At the glass door outside, she flashed me a smile, and blew smoke out of the side of her mouth. I asked for a light. It was a small world. We didn’t live that far apart back in Dublin. We’d gone to schools near enough to each other and would’ve drank in some of the same pubs. Both of us feigned recognition. “Oh, I thought you looked familiar,” and “Yeah, I do know so-and-so.” She went to her pack for another, but was all out. I’d one left that she offered to split.
She apologized for the duck-arsed fag. There was something intimate about the warmth of her saliva on my lips and it made my heart pound. After noticing my tattooed wrist, Ciara took hold of it, examining and running a finger along a blown-out line.
“I wish I’d gotten more, if I’m honest.” she said.
“It’s never too late.”
Ciara gave her mouth a blast of a minty breath freshener.
“Does he not know?” I asked her.
She raised a thin eyebrow, as if to say, “Are you fucking joking?” before scoffing, “He wouldn’t notice if I shaved my head.” Before parting to head back to our tables, we formally introduced ourselves. First name. Last name. Handshake.
The next evening, back in Dublin, I went to meet my wife at the airport. My WhatsApp messages went undelivered. Her phone had died. But when she finally appeared through the arrivals gate, she looked small and broken. I thought about the soccer match, our wedding photo, Christopher’s clear eyes and dribble-soaked chin. My heart squeezed closed like a fist and I knew we wouldn’t make it. Waving away like a fool from behind the barrier, I greeted Heather with a hug and took her bags. She didn’t have a Toblerone. Just a headache, and a cold sore.