“Chance” by Rona Fitzgerald

It all started when my hairdresser moved away. My friend Mairead recommended the one she goes to in the city centre. ‘I have been going there twenty years’, she said, ‘they are not cheap Áine, but they do a great cut’. On that first Wednesday morning, I was early for my appointment and a bit wary about going into this posh place. I saw the leisure emporium and went in on a whim – it was only three doors up from the hairdresser. I was surprised that I really enjoyed the ten minutes on the slot machines. It felt liberating and I walked with a strong step to the hairdresser. That was about eight months ago.

I hadn’t realised the extent to which it had become the highlight of my week until about three weeks ago when my daughter Maura said ‘why don’t you come and visit us on Wednesday afternoon Mammy’. ‘I can’t on Wednesday love’, I said quickly, ‘it’s the day I meet my pals’. It was a lie, but I could hardly say that I go to the slot machines on a Wednesday. But I really look forward to the outing, as I call it. When I’m there, I forget that I am a fifty nine year old granny called Áine who lives on her own in a forlorn house on the northside of Dublin.

I never got into golf like some of my pals. Frank, my husband, would have liked me to play ‘for social reasons’ if not for exercise. But it never interested me at all; it was one of the few times I didn’t go along with his suggestions. Yet, when I step into the leisure emporium, as they are grandiosely called in Dublin, I feel different. It is as if I am putting on the skin of somebody else – a more confident outgoing woman than myself. I enjoy the chance element and just sharing a laugh with other people. I see all sorts, young and old, immigrants and natives.

I am very careful with my money and it’s not hard for me to blend in with my grey hair and dumpy figure. I hate that word dumpy but I am small and sturdy. I carry a small purse with my allowance of £10 and my weekly bus ticket. I keep the keys for home in the inner pocket of my mauve jacket. It’s a walking jacket that my son Sean bought me for Christmas. ‘ This jacket is gortex, mother, it will keep you dry. In my view, quality is critical and this is the best’. It seems ungracious to say so, but I think he was mainly trying to impress me with his buying power.

Today I am meeting my daughter Maura for a chat in a chic coffee place near her work. It is one of those modern places with proper coffee machines and easy chairs. The colour scheme is cream and apricot with warm wood flooring, it’s busy but relaxed, I like the feel of it. I take off my green rain coat that I bought on my last trip to France, fold it carefully and then I sit near the back of the café where I can see the door. I spent a lot of last night thinking about the situation and what I will say to Maura. I have rehearsed my lines a good few times, speaking quietly but resolutely. Last night I realised how many times I have backed off a confrontation with Frank or with the children, but today, I am determined that she will give me a chance to say my piece.

I can still see the look of horror on Maura’s face last week when she found out about my habit as she called it. She saw me coming out of the emporium last Wednesday and called out to me. I admitted that I was a regular. ‘I don’t believe it Mammy, the slot machines of all places, that place is full of losers and druggies’ Today she is taking time out from her high powered legal job to ‘try to understand what has happened to you mother’. Maura is the youngest of my three children; she’s twenty-eight, tall and athletic with dark auburn hair slim build and a look of what I can only call polish. She calls it grooming. From early on she was determined that she would get on, in particular that she would not ‘end up like her mother’. This was referring to the fact that I left my job when I got married. Well, we had no choice at that time.

Maura arrives looking busy with her blackberry in one hand and a purse in the other. ‘What will you have Mammy’. I note we are back to Mammy now. She only calls me mother when she wants to express exasperation or when she wants to be proper in front of colleagues. Like Sean, she is very conscious of appearances and I know that she would be embarrassed if people knew that her mother had a habit. I say that I’ll have a latte. She bustles off in her dark business suit and comes back with the tray. Before she gets seated, I blurt out ‘the thing is love I just go the one day a week, I never spend more that £10 and it’s really not a bad place. You meet all sorts even educated people….’ I never got to finish the sentence, as she explodes ‘My God, mother, don’t tell me any more, it just gets worse and worse’.

Then, her voice changes to a softer tone and she leans in towards me. ‘The thing is Mammy, I was wondering whether you would like to talk to somebody professional, maybe a therapist or a counsellor. Sean, Nuala and I were talking last night and Sean suggested that maybe you are still struggling with losing Daddy like that. It’s nearly eighteen months since he died and we wondered whether it is harder for you now than it was at first?’

I can hardly speak and Maura thinks that it is in response to the mention of her dad’s death. Frank had a heart attack during a meeting in his office and when I came out of the fog of shock and grief, I found that it hard to know what to do with my time. Not that he and I were that good company for each other those last few years, he was still working and playing golf and he seemed to have a lot of obligations to friends and colleagues.

Frank had decreed that I should not return to work even though the Celtic Tiger was crying out for mature workers at that time. He shook his head as he explained in his best civil service voice, ‘we don’t need the income and I think you deserve a break, Mammy, for all your years of hard work’. I tired to explain, ‘it’s not about the money, Frank, it’s about being useful’. I suppose if I was honest it was about a bit of independence. While we were very comfortable, Frank did a summary of weekly expenditure and I always felt as if I was being held to account. But as usual, he was so adamant that I gave up the idea.

Maura too is made of stern stuff and used to pursuing her point – like those interrogators in the films who keep on until they nail the perpetrator. She repeats her suggestion that I should seek ‘professional’ help. She speaks softly and looks directly at me. I look down at my coffee absorbed in the knowledge that Sean and Nuala agree with her. Sean is the eldest and Nuala is in the middle. She is the one that I am closest to as an adult. I feel her betrayal more than any of them. I start to speak but I have to cough to clear my throat, I put down my coffee cup as it is clattering in my shaky hands. ‘Look love, I don’t need a therapist’ I say quietly, ‘ I really don’t see how a weekly outing to the slot machines means that I am an addict’. Then I excuse myself and go into the toilets as my eyes are brimming over.

It’s harder to bear now that I know that Sean and Nuala agree with Maura. I had thought that Nuala knew me well; after all, she was the one that suggested getting out of the house. ‘Why don’t you get a job, Mammy, even part-time, it might help to pass the week’. Reluctantly, I said I would give it a try. I applied for a job as a part-time receptionist in a financial company last October. I went up to Nuala the night before for coaching and wardrobe advice. ‘First impressions are critical mother you need to look competent and smart but not threatening. They won’t hire you if you look too bossy or together!’ I ended up in one of her suit jackets and a casual skirt of my own – luckily we are roughly the same size. I spent the night before awake and rehearsing my lines. I usually have no trouble with lines as I used to be in an amateur acting group. But I was angry and frustrated at myself for agreeing to look for work and I kept thinking about the inadequacy of my skills. The next morning I felt spent and opted to present a quiet, and hopefully not timid, face to the panel. Yes, there were three of them and I floundered at the perky questions and business speak that they used. ‘Thanks a million Áine for taking the time to come and speak to us’, she said, the HR person in her tight fitting suit with a compensating feminine pussy bow, ‘we will be letting applicants know in due course.’ I didn’t get the job.

When I come out of the toilets, I am composed but I can see from the set of Maura’s face that she has more to say. She continues to speak softly as if reassuring a child or a frightened animal. ‘Would you give it a chance, Mammy; I think that it would do you good to talk to someone. Family can only do so much and it may help to have somebody you don’t know, that you can talk to freely. Conor’s sister went to a really good therapist when she had that bout of depression and she found it really helpful.’

Conor is often used as a reference point for suggestions that are really Maura’s own. She has a way of persuading you that she is only doing things for your own good. Maybe it’s her legal training but I always feel wrong footed. ‘I don’t know’, I say, ‘I would feel like a fraud. I don’t think that I need to talk to anyone about this, particularly not a stranger who doesn’t know me. It’s just slot machines and an outing Maura; it’s not the bookies or Internet gambling like in those lurid newspaper stories of gambling grannies online all day.’ I steady myself and speak with more confidence than I feel. My hands are moist and my blue silk scarf feels too tight around my neck. ‘Look, I have tried to explain to you Maura and I’m beginning to run out of patience.’ Uncharacteristically for me, I continue to raise my voice, really stressing my words, ‘ I don’t think that one outing a week is a habit or an addiction, it’s just an afternoon away from being me!’ When I say it, I realise that it’s true. I am bored with myself and with my small horizon. I let all my interests like drama and music go by the wayside over the years. My degree in English was considered useful when I worked in the civil service for a few years, but after I got married my focus was the family.

Maura is now looking down and she fidgets with a sugar packet, shaking it as if she is testing whether there is anything in it. I had rarely raised my voice even when they were children. Her hands reach out to across the table. ‘The last thing I want to do is upset you Mammy, you have never talked about your frustration and we didn’t know that you are lonely and bored. I think that grief affects people differently. We are trying to help and understand and I think that your distress at my suggestion underlines the possibility that therapy would be good for you. It will also put our minds at rest’.
I hold her hand for a minute. From the start, I hesitated about speaking to people about this outing because it is my outing. I haven’t even told my pals. I didn’t think they would understand and maybe, I even enjoyed the secret. I remember the day I met the young student that I see there on Grafton Street, and he said ‘see you Wednesday’. And I smiled to myself.

When I came into the restaurant, I saw a print of Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Christ. It reminded me of myself, wanting to be needed and to be useful. I looked forward to Frank coming home even when he didn’t say much. It gave me a reason to cook and bake. Now that I am on my own, it seems like a waste to cook a roast or a whole cake. And, it’s been a while since I enjoyed my food, but on Wednesday’s, I go home and eat with relish!

Maura asks again gently, ‘would you try one session Mammy, and if you don’t like it, then you can stop. It’s just that we are concerned and we would really like to help.’ Then she is back to the practical lawyer. ‘Of course, we will pay for it so you don’t need to worry about fees’. I am now trying to gulp down the coffee, as my mouth feels dry. I try to explain one last time. ‘Honestly love, it makes me feel good not bad, and I never think about going on another day’. Maura pauses a moment looking down as if considering the point. But then she looks straight at me and repeats her suggestion that gambling itself is probably a sign of distress. I am struggling with my resolve and try to breathe deeply. But then I find myself agreeing to try the therapy, ‘just the once’, I say, trying to regain my equilibrium, ‘until I see what its like’. Maura gives me a hug and says, ‘I think you will find it good Mammy, I really do. I am pleased that you agree. I’ll call you later with the name and number for the therapist’.
Oh God, I thought why didn’t I just say no!

Biographical Note

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