(A second story because let’s be honest I’ve neglected this poor site all year. Enjoy!)
Inside she felt herself the equal of anyone on this earth, she was equal to anybody in this world, she was worthy of love and affection, she was someone – a daughter, a sister, a friend she had worth. She repeated it over and over in her head. A new mantra, a weekly penance after her visit to her therapist. I am equal in worth, I am valued, I am loved.
She watched the world through an altered reality, the rivulets of water distorting the world outside the coffee shop window, the busy Saturday revellers warped and fractured in the rivers of colour and chaos on the steamy glass.
It had become a habit, a debriefing of the debriefing, a half hour to collect herself after having been laid bare for an hour. Time to pull herself back together having been torn apart. She understood it had to be done, she had to get to the bottom before she could rebuild but my god it hurt.
She looked at the cold coffee in front of her, a thin scum forming on top. Caffeine just didn’t cut the mustard, it couldn’t numb the pain, dull the sharp edges of her existence. She needed a drink but her therapist had explained that she had self medicated like that for too long she needed to change her habits to change her mindset. But why was it so damn hard. Surely a drink wouldn’t kill her.
She watched the world go by outside, an old lady pulling a shopping trolley with a tiny terrier drown from the rain tucked into the top, a tiny pink bow keeping its long hair from its eyes. A family wrapped up against the rain, mum with two kids by the hand and dad with a baby in a swaddle; happy and content chattering with giddy smiles on their faces, a couple huddled together, love in their eyes and bags of shopping carried on outer arms.
The world outside seemed happy, too happy, the rain didn’t seem to dampen the mood and the coffee shop, warm and dry, sparkled with Christmas lights and upbeat music. She felt the people outside should be in here and she outside, her mood reflected the weather, her presence a dampener on everyone’s life. They would be better off without her.
She caught herself; repeated her mantra but who was she kidding, nobody cared, not even her.
The rain looked like it had stopped, the streets filled with busy shoppers and the cafe emptied out. She would have to move shortly, she had so much to do, so much to organise and pack. There was the small matter of a Christmas gift list to be sorted. What the hell do you buy for two ten year old girls that won’t have their mothers giving you that knowing side eye that tells you you are the worst aunt and grown up in the world? Martha wondered if she could ask in the shop across the street, a ladies clothes store, surely one of the staff members would have some ideas. She had been banned from books this year, her sister complaining that she’d run out of space to house the continuous stream of books being sent from the city. Martha had scoffed, books were the best gifts to give, but again, as always, she had given in to her sisters and done what they had asked. It had always been that way, she may have been the oldest but she was by far the weakest and they had always gotten their way.
Martha always blamed them for her feelings of worthlessness, they had always bossed her around and made her feel useless, but her therapist was slowly unravelling these emotions and she was realising it had been as much about her own feelings and issues as it had been about her sisters’ treatment of her. She stared at the now cold coffee and sighed deeply. She had always blamed everyone else for how she felt. Her parents for preferring her sisters, for being disappointed in her for moving away, for not getting married, for not giving them grandchildren, her sisters for always treating her like she was the younger sisters and John for always treating her as a bit on the side, for never investing emotionally in their relationship. She was slowly realising that it was more about what she thought of herself and how she allowed herself to be treated.
A tap on her shoulder broke the self pity trance and she looked up to see Matt the coffee shop owner standing with a full coffee pot and smiling. He had one of those smiles that melted people’s hearts, you could feel the genuinity behind it. Martha had first met him on the first day she had started therapy, she had just finished a session and had literally been wiped out, she would have loved a drink but the pubs were closed and a strong coffee was just going to have to do. She was visibly distressed and he had noticed immediately. He’d been kind and sat her in a private booth and left her to sit and cry, he’d filled her coffee and checked in regularly, never prying but supportive in his presence.
He stood smiling, the coffee pot held out and she thought how handsome he was. Perhaps in another life in another place she may have fancied him, pursued the idea of asking him out, but he’d seen her at her most vulnerable and weakest and there was no getting over that.
‘Heading home for Christmas?’
‘Yeah, home to mammy and daddy and my sisters for a week and a half, if I survive that long!’
Concern spread across his face and she realised what he was thinking…
She smiled back at him reassuringly hoping he would see the funny side and he smiled back and took her coffee cup.
‘Think you need a fresh one I’ll be right back’
Martha couldn’t believe how nice he was, he knew so little but also so much about her and was always so unfazed by that. They had had so many brief encounters here in the warm safe space of the coffee shop that she couldn’t imagine what it would be like to meet him somewhere else, to see him without the black apron and the ever present coffee pot. She wondered what it would be like to meet for a drink, in a crowded space, with music or a meal, like normal people. She couldn’t remember the last time she had a date, the last time someone had thought enough of her to ask her out or the last time she had thought enough of herself that she might want to do the asking.
The door opened and a gust of cold air woke her from her thoughts. She looked back out the window and saw a crowd of twenty somethings clad in glary Christmas jumpers, swaying and singing as they linked arms and took over the space outside the window. They reminded her of the local at home, The Donkey was always jammed with 12 Pubbers at this time of year. She could see herself now, pushing through the crush, tearing off scarf and coat, shouting orders over heads at Cillian behind the bar, pushing towards the back through the ‘How are yas?’ ‘How’s the big smoke?’ ‘Down in the sticks for the holidays are we Martha?’ ‘How’s that fella of yours, made an honest woman of you yet?’ She felt the heat from the crowd and the embarrassment, the fear of trying to answer all the questions and avoiding the truth at all costs. She heard the booming FairyTale of New York, sung too loud and too often, she saw the twinkling lights, the log fire, the old familiar faces and the old cold familiar feelings. She shuddered at the thought of too many vinos and a drunken stagger down the hill to Mass, hoping to gain penance for her sins, knowing full well that until she opened up and told the truth there would be no redemption. She could feel the loneliness of sitting at Midnight Mass on her own and agonising over all that she had done wrong this year. Staring up at the soaring vaulted Cathedral ceiling above her, decked out in all it’s finery of red, green and gold, candles flickering, mass goers bustling and excited and then she heard it, that voice, that clear, true voice, the one that brought her back each Christmas, the one that was filled with hope and promise… Oh holy night the stars are brightly shining… and she smiled each year she left with a renewed hope, a renewed feeling of this year being the one that would be different, the one where she would sort her shit out. Where did she keep going wrong? She rubbed the silvering pink scar on her left wrist, lost in her thoughts…
She pulled the tacky Christmas jumper down over her pale wrist and hid her hand under the counter top.
‘I know it’s there you know! I’ve a similar one. We’ve all had our adventures and carry baggage.’ He smiled that smile again, and lifted the sleeves of his shirt, ‘War wounds – proof that we are tough enough to survive.’
There was a silence, a comfortable silence and Martha realised she was staring and turned back to the window. She wasn’t alone, he wasn’t judging.
‘When are you leaving for Cork? Maybe we could grab a drink or something before you go, toast the season?’
Martha hesitated, the train left at 8 and she had shopping to do and the flat to lock up before she went, there was no time to catch a drink and should she be even drinking or contemplating drinking with a man. Life was still so complicated. She sighed softly and looked up at Matt.
He read the answer on her face and winked.
‘Might catch you in the New Year so then.’
Her phone rang just as she was about to answer and he nodded for her to answer and he spun around and headed back to the counter. Her sister’s beautiful face flashed at her and she paused before answering, she took a deep breath.
‘Maryanne wants the new Luna Lip Star and Louise wants a hoodie. Please don’t buy books Martha, they just don’t read them like the rest of us. Dad will pick you up at 10 from the train station. Try not to be late as he is picking myself and Darren up from the pub at half past.’
There was no hello or goodbye and Martha swirled the warm coffee in her cup. The warmth was in stark contrast to the cold relationship she had with her sisters and her family. She felt like a burden and a chore, everytime she was home there was something on, something she was hindering or interrupting. She sipped the coffee, she’d had enough. She was done. She was the equal of anyone on this earth, she was equal to anybody in this world, she was worthy of love and affection. Maybe therapy was working. She put down the coffee cup and sat straight up.
‘Right. I’ve shopping to do! Dubray Books here I come.’
She gathered her things with determination and moved towards the counter. Matt was busy with a customer and she tried to catch his eye. All of a sudden she had things to do and she wanted to get started. He passed a frothy cappuccino over the counter to an elderly lady who fidgeted far too slowly with her purse and Martha tapped her foot impatiently.
Come on, Come on! She thought. I need to hold this feeling and move now before I change my mind.
The lady moved along the line to the milk and sugar and Martha stepped up to the counter, handing her phone over to Matt.
‘I’ll take your number please and a coffee to go.’
She smiled and hoped it sounded as smooth as it did in her head. It must have, as he smiled that cheeky smile and took the phone. He handed it back and turned to make the coffee. When he turned back his face was flush and giddy and as he handed the coffee out over the display of gingerbread men he brushed her hand softly. The chemistry was undeniable, she felt it run from her hand right through her body and Martha smiled at him.
‘The coffee is on me, you can get the drink!’
She turned and headed towards the door, her heart racing and her head spinning. She stopped to let a lady ladened down with shopping and two kids in the door. She looked tired and drained and the kids hopped noisily in and around her and the tables and chairs. She thanked Martha with a nod and moved towards the nearest table, dropping the bags with relief. Martha paused for a moment, recognising her briefly but unsure as to why. She shook her head, things to do, she went to leave and ran straight into the next customer, full force knocking herself to the floor. Coffee spilled out across the floor and she found herself spread eagle in the doorway. Mortified, she gathered her bag and went to stand up only to come face to face with John. Her blood ran cold, she hadn’t seen him since…since before she started therapy. She stood, and righted her coat and hair, took a deep breath and looked him straight in the face.
‘Happy Christmas John’
He looked awful, like all the colour had drained from his face and she’d caught him doing something he shouldn’t. He stood with his mouth open and said nothing. The lady she had just held the door for, bustled around her, mopping the coffee with napkins, asking her if she was alright and then lightly tapped John on the arm.
‘I’m always telling you to watch where you’re going.’
John stuttered and mumbled a pathetic sorry. He looked worried and weak and for the first time in as long as Martha knew him she felt like she had the power. He glared at her pleadingly and she grinned.
She held her hand out to the lady and shook it.
‘I’m fine thanks, and it’s true he never watches where he’s going. I’m Martha. I work with John at the publishing house. Pleasure to finally meet you, but I best be off. Hope you have a lovely Christmas.’
John’s wife gave him a look and Martha wondered what it meant, but it didn’t really matter. That part of her life was over, she knew and felt that now. She felt strong and confident, even after the embarrassing fall. She drew her bag up over her shoulder and turned to see Matt watching concerned from the counter. She winked playfully at him and he smiled.
She stepped out into the cold crisp December air. The noise and atmosphere of a busy Dublin street filled her with Christmas cheer. There were books to be bought and wrapped, an outfit or two perhaps. She had things she wanted to do and things she wanted to enjoy. Christmas was one of them. There was no train to catch, just the post office before it closed. She pulled her phone from her bag and brought up Matt’s number.
‘I hear the trains to Cork are cancelled until after Christmas, so I’m free to meet for a drink tonight. See you in Mulligans at 8’.