A Difficult Equation – Kevin Doyle

I’m just in the door from school. I run upstairs and leap onto my bed. I tear open the envelope

‘For Josh’ that was sitting on my brown wooden hall floor only ten seconds earlier. The golden words from a felt tip pen engulf the torn middle page of a copy book.

‘Dear Josh,

Meet at front of your house at 7PM tonight with bike. Be on time.

Would’ve text but phone grounded for week from Mum.

The one and only,

Sarah O’Malley.’

How she’ll go a week without a selfie I’ll never know? I would’ve liked more information from Sarah in her letter. I’m not in the mood for surprises. Well, if Mam said she’d bring me to McDonalds right now I’d accept that sort of surprise. All I want to do at 7pm on the first night of my October mid-term break is flake out on the couch and watch Halloween horror movies while sucking the fizz from lots of cola bottles and then chew the gelatine with my molars while popping as many Minstrels as possible that I can fit into my mouth at any one time and mince this strange concoction together for an experience of sticky sweet chocolate milk pleasure.

Reading the letter again, I’m not sure I’ve ever received a paper correspondence. I do open

Mam and Dad’s post to make sure they pay their bills on time. I’ve a secret diary marking the due dates, just in case they miss a payment. They think I should mind my own twelve-yearold business. But, I’d do anything to help them. Anything. I already know my new year’s resolution- it’s to stop the vicious noise over envelopes.

It’s not always bills that arrive through the door that cause discontent between them.

Sometimes it’s wedding invitations. Dad has a lot of family on his side and they all seem to be getting married the past few years. Mam says she’d rather receive a court summons then go and fake a day with a bunch of animals. She calls those invitations ‘panic I’m thirty, anyone will do. Even if we both belong in a zoo.’

A couple of weeks ago over in Gran’s house, Gran peered out the window and made sure she heard Mam’s crunching shoes on the gravel and the sound of her engine leaving for the shops before launching into her tirade.

‘Your rosy cheeks, blonde hair and blue eyes are going to get you far in life Joshua. Never lose that gentle side you have. That innocence. Don’t let it all out like your father, his mouth moves before he engages his brain.’

She took a sip of her gin and tonic before the next statement.

‘But, don’t become a doormat like my daughter either.’

‘Balance Gran. Be balanced is what you are saying? Equilibrium.’

‘Good little boy. Your maths is coming along. They were right to move you up to the advanced class.’

Only last night, I got a hint of Gran’s intuitive observations bellowing from the living room. I lopsided my left earlobe over the banisters from the upstairs landing to get as close to the drama as possible. The argument was all my fault. Dad’s wish is to send me to a private school in the city centre when I begin secondary school next September and he’s already enrolled me years ago without telling Mam. All that’s left for him now is to pay the big fee. Better education and more opportunities later in life are the biggest draws for him. But Mam reckons he’s trying to live out his failures through me and it’s not correct she said, it’s just plain wrong. That and the price is giving her sticky feet. Mam’s already enrolled me in the local community school. My eyes quivered with teasing tears ready to burst as I left the landing and went back to bed. I blocked out all the toing and froing by pressing my palms deep into my ears.  I stayed with the sound of seashells until I dozed off.

Mam, Dad and I have our heads buried in our different devices in the living room as the light outside says goodbye for another day. The six-o clock news is hovering in the background. I can see Mam’s candy crush iPad screen reflecting in the window as she sits in her usual single sofa nearest the door. She’s stuck on the same level for the past few nights. Dad says the rays from my laptop can fry your nuts without a barrier between you and it so I’ve a cushion on my lap as I scroll through the under thirteen North Dublin soccer fixtures lying back in the corner of our long sofa. The main news story is about the politician Albert Moore, our local guy who knocks on the doors around voting time. He looks nothing like the posters that were plastered up around our area before the election last month. His crinkled forehead looks new to me. Photoshop is a wonderful thing. He’s not even a month in the job and he’s already in hot water. He says he won the €60,000 at the races which his then accountant lodged into an offshore bank account but he can’t remember what race or when he won the money. I could hear Dad whisper under his breath ‘another politician bollix.’ Dad’s on the same sofa as me but far away in the other corner.  It’s a simple probability that he’s engrossed in some woman other than Mam. I check his internet history from time to time. He likes the English glamour models with the plastic boobs the most.

Earlier before we all sat together to watch the six-o clock news, the three of us had our dinner together. The rotten silence from last night’s argument still lingering at the table as we sat down to some stew. Mam forgot to add the meat. The meal was so soft the vegetables and potatoes just disintegrated into the floor of my mouth and sat there until I washed it all clear with a glass of coke. Mam’s on a half day on Friday’s from work and always makes mistakes on this day so I’m not shocked one bit. I wouldn’t dare say, but if she didn’t start on the wine the second she got in the door I’d say she’d have a better run at the day. She thinks I can’t see her glass hidden behind the fruit bowl. The number of wine bottles getting recycled when we go shopping on Saturday’s is excellent for the environment, don’t get me wrong. And, the profit margins in Barefoot Pinot Grigio must be very healthy with her spending habits. But it scares me, her drinking. Ever since she found out last year that my new brother or sister didn’t have a heartbeat at the twelve-week scan this wine thing has gotten out of control. *****

7pm

Sarah’s brown hair is usually down to her shoulders but this evening it’s in a bun like that girl from Northern Ireland who got caught with the drugs in Peru. She’s wearing red Adidas runners, black leggings and a dark denim jacket, her eyes a lighter shade. She needs a padded jacket to warm her from the pre-emptive chill. I’ll just give her my coat when that happens. If she asked me to kiss her tonight I wouldn’t say no. That’s a new thing I’d like to happen. My only experience of kissing was with chunky Annie out my back garden during the summer as a one-off tongues kiss. I still get a headache from time to time thinking of my airwaves chewing gum mixed with her Tayto Chipsticks breath.

‘Hey Sarah,’ I say, the red in her eyes suggesting she has just finished crying.

She’s looking up at my hair. I put too much brylcreem in. I knew it.

‘Sort of busy Sarah, so what’s up? Did you watch Marley&Me again? I told you that always sets you off.’

‘On the phone last night Josh your Dad and my Mum were talking in secret.’

Now she’s crying streams of tears.

‘What were they talking about?’

‘I heard Mum whisper 7:30pm tomorrow at the Skylon Hotel. I was listening outside her bedroom door.’

‘Why would they be meeting outside of hours like this?’

‘I don’t know. Mum finished the call by saying it’s our secret. I won’t tell a soul’

The clink and clank wine bottle feeling is starting to come into my belly. I get this warm terror in my stomach when I hear the smash of the glass hit the bottom of the recycling bin at the back of the shopping centre on Saturday mornings.

‘Are you 100% it was my Dad on the phone?’

‘No offence but your Dad doesn’t talk at a normal tone he shouts when he speaks.’

‘None taken. He does actually come to think of it.’

I gaze up at the street lamp above getting lost in its shine. It’s electrical current the only buzz in the air.

‘Josh, we are going to catch them red handed. Right in the act of deceit and betrayal.’

I can already see Dad denying this in the same way Bill Clinton did in 1998.

‘I did not have…sexual…relations…with that woman Mrs O’Malley.’

He’d even say it coated with a slight American twang to try and get off the hook as well.

I place my bike up against my front wall and walk up to the living room window and look in.

Mam is asleep on her chair. I notice Dad isn’t in the living room anymore.  

His car isn’t in the driveway either come to think of it. How did I miss him sneaking off?

‘Sarah, what would Judge Judy do here?’

‘Josh, she wouldn’t say Sarah’s talking complete ‘baloney.’ She’d get deeper into the layers of the case to get the truth.’

We both took off on our bikes towards the hotel led by Sarah.

Five minutes into the journey on the avenue, Sarah is zigzagging her way around the knobbly oak trees and looks back at me to make sure I’m close. I’m cycling on the path in the markedout lane, purposely staying back from her lunatic antics. She’s lucky the real blackness of the night is delayed by the strong orange street lights shining over her head or she’d end up on her snot.

Sarah drops coins into a homeless man’s white plastic cup as we wait at a crossroads. We peddle towards the green flashing man.

‘Sarah, that fella has legs. I’ve seen him walking around. Today he has no legs and tomorrow he’ll have them on again. He’s cod-in ya.’

Sarah smirks a delicious smugness.

‘Don’t be so silly Josh. Your mind can run away with you. Come on. Try and keep up.’

Sarah pats me twice on the head condescendingly and peddles off. Game on. I catch up with Sarah after her challenge and pass her out. Now I am on the road for the first time leading the way. I properly should’ve looked for bikes whizzing by me but I did take a tiny glance over my right shoulder before entering the unknown. I feel the warm presence of a bus from behind make a gushing noise, its bumper just a tip away from my back wheel. Its petrolly lingering smell runs up my nostrils reminding me of the kid from the boy in the striped pyjamas for some reason. I bet that boy smelled all weird stuff like that. I hope I don’t end up like him by the end of tonight. The monstrous bus overtakes me and I wave like the queen to the driver just saying thanks and apologies for the hold up. He doesn’t wave back.

The roads are much busier now as we make our way through numerous intersections. We both decide to dismount from the bikes and walk the rest of the way. Sarah’s face is very serious now. Her playful antics are light years away. I recognise the busy area. I’m usually only in this part of Dublin sitting on top of a double decker bus with my parents as we make our way towards town. I always look down from the top deck and notice when the pedestrians say hello to someone they know their smile would shine as they greet them but then as soon as that person is out of sight their facial expression returns to its flat self. Come to think of it, now I know what Mam might mean by faking a day at a wedding. She must have to keep that smile up for the whole day. Imagine the pain in that? Maybe that’s what love is? It’s doing things you don’t want to do.

We reach the front entrance of the hotel. We place the bikes up against the hotel wall.

‘Sarah, any last words’?

‘Well, you know Josh, it will never be the same after this. We’ll be banned from hanging out.’

Sarah put her hands on my shoulders. She closes her eyes and leans forward pouting her lips like a duck and twists her head to the left. I close my eyes and put my hands on her lower back. I think that’s where you’re supposed to put them? My lips stay the same as far as I am aware. No duck impersonation. An internal butterfly zips up the centre of my stomach and flies around dying to burst out to celebrate this magic feeling with me. Maybe this is the feeling of love? Millimetres from lip to lip, the noise of an ambulance roars by us. We both hold our hearts until the skipping beat slows down. The potential kiss is blown to smithereens.

‘You mind the bikes. Any more information on where to go inside the hotel’? I say, my body still in fright mode from the red sirens. I want to switch its mechanics to flight mode and get out of this discomfort zone.

Sarah covers her face with both hands.

‘Sarah, what’s going on’?

‘My Mam’s working here tonight,’ Sarah says, speaking through her spread fingers still on her face.

She points to the laminated poster that is inserted beside the restaurant menu on the front of the hotel.

I read every line.

‘Family members who live with loved ones who are addicted to alcohol or drugs, please note there is a meeting at seven thirty in conference room B. The meeting is run by addiction counsellor Emily O’Malley. All welcome.’

I shook my head and wished life could be more like my times tables, predictable and never changing.  

The problem was solved in a relatively short amount of time. No drama. No shouting. I am content with this part of the conundrum. But there’d be more minuses before the situation at home became a plus. The percentage of this sum was 100%.

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