Linda waits in Arrivals, along with my nephew Richard and her neighbour Joanne. Hug, kiss, hug again. Andrew hangs back. Linda hugs him, too. They've chatted on the phone, arranged flight times, made small talk. Casual conversation is fine-tuned as Joanne's car drops us at the Europa. We check in, dump the bags, dash back downstairs. Joanne is waiting to take us to Linda's. My mother is staying there, temporarily. I haven't seen her since my father's funeral. Not since October.
The Shankill Road is empty. The night threatens rain but never delivers.
More hugs, kisses, catching up. My mother is thinner. The room is hot. Andrew and I cross the street and return with a plastic bag full of crisps, chocolate bars and diet drinks. Richard watches television, Ryan listens to Michael Jackson, Melissa concentrates, intently, intensely, impatiently, on her Game Boy. Ping. Ping. Ping.
We talk about work, films, Richard, Ryan and Melissa's school reports, my big brother Bill.
My mother says we'll visit my father's grave tomorrow; a bi-weekly ritual. My younger brother Thomas will "run us up". A taxi carries us back to the hotel.
Breakfast is late. Andrew has ordered the Ulster Fry: "When in Rome ..." He answers the door in a towel. Room service puts the tray on the table, turns, clocks me under the crumpled sheets. I yawn, stretch, wink: "Don't mind me. I'm just this cheap blond he picked up." The boy doesn't wait for his tip.
The red of the Liverpool football crest is an ornate wound, a raised scar, on the black marble of my father's headstone. But it works; like a dirty joke boldly told in Sunday school. My mother and Linda have brought polish, cloth, artificial flowers, white and purple and pink. I haven't brought Andrew. I'm asked why. I say I didn't think it was appropriate. He's exploring instead: My Boyfriend's Big Adventure. Thomas and I exchange confidences and shiver as winds of ice cut unfeelingly across the flat fields. He tells me friends, colleagues, comrades-in-arms of my father are planted all around. He names the names. My mother steps back to scrutinise her handiwork and begins to cry: "They killed him on me ..." "Now, Ma," Linda comforts. Thomas kisses his hand, touches it on the gleaming marble and gold lettering - "A gentleman ..." - and wishes our Dad goodbye.
Thomas drops us off. We have lunch and spend the afternoon "down the town" shopping. Andrew and my mother wander behind us, chatting. I buy him a top. "Irish green," he says. "Irish green," I agree. "At least three of the 40 shades." He looks wonderful: wide-eyed and happy. I want to hold him. My mother gets a jaunty navy blue cardigan with naval motifs. She protests: "No, son, that's too expensive." Linda asks if we'll come to Sunday lunch tomorrow. Sure. Outside M&S I excuse myself, find a public toilet, lock myself in. The shakes come and go.
There's a gym near the hotel. Bike, treadmill, rowing machine, free weights: body sweats, muscles strain, mind empties.
The peace process.
The club is called the Parliament. The man moving, moving, moving next to us has a question: "Is that your fella?" His lilting accent comes through well-maintained teeth. "Yes. He's Andrew, I'm John." "Do you do threesomes?" "No." "That's a pity. You sure?" "I'm sure." Luminous ghosts float on the ceiling. Toned, tanned torsos gyrate in cages, above a superfluous command: "Dance with passion." An accountant type removes his glasses and does exactly that, instantly becoming a whirlwind of radiant white. An arm snakes round my waist. "John!" "Yes?" The face is familiar, though fuller. And the hair is bushy fox-red. It never was before. "It's me! Brian!" I blurt: "You look great." He does too. Brian boogies on the spot: "We'll talk later." "Yes." Somehow we miss one another.
Sunday morning. Room service raps andleaves the tray outside the door.
Andrew eats and drinks too much at lunch. Linda keeps pouring Chablis - "Diane from across the street sent it over" - and proffering raspberry cheesecake. Linda likes him: "He's dead nice. Dead nice. He's good with me Ma, too." She snorts: "I wonder what he thinks of us." Andrew is a foot away. He can hear every word. He pretends not to. I tell Linda I haven't asked, so I don't know. Thomas arrives. We compare and contrast the book and movie versions of Carlito's Way. He calls Andrew "Andy". I haven't done that yet.
Diane from across the street drives us down to the Europa. My mother stands at the door of Linda's house and waves. I wave back until she's out of sight.
I don't like Mondays: the man at check-in says the flight to Stansted will be delayed by half an hour. I want to say - I nearly shout - that I have things to do. Andrew suggests coffee. The cafe is cramped, the customers are sleepwalkers, pasty and slow under the relentless strip lighting. Andrew blows on his paper cup, takes my hand, squeezes, and says he's had a good time, a really, really good time, thank you. I say: "I'm glad."
I stare at our interlocked fingers and check my watch. On the minute, every minute.Reuse content