There are some days when being the Garda Sergeant of a small Irish town really tests me. Having to police my family and friends is a necessary evil, but when I’m faced with arresting half the children in the town, and discovering someone close to me among the offenders, well, those days I really wish I’d chosen a different career.
Irate parents are not my only problem unfortunately, as I’m then called to manage a baying mob of strangers, bearing placards and demanding change. I’m all for peaceful protest, but these people were threatening the vulnerable, and I’m just not having that.
So, after a very long week, I just want to go home and put my feet up, when a dramatic, decades-old secret is revealed. It shocks everyone in the family to the core, and it feels like everywhere I turn, where once there was trust and honesty, now there are nothing but lies.
I usually know what to do for the best, but faced with this, I’m unsure. Should I trust my instincts and bend the rules, or should I apply the law to the letter?
Release date: May 16, 2023
Print pages: 294
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Each To Their Own: A Mags Munroe Story
Staring into the bathroom mirror, I force my eyes open as wide as possible, trying to stretch out the wrinkled bags into which they are sinking. It doesn’t work. I swear my eyebrows are where my eyelids used to be. Hooded, that’s the word.
Believe it or not, I did not know I had turned into the evil hag from Snow White until I saw the picture Kate took yesterday on her new phone and shared to the family group on WhatsApp, saying, Mam xxx. She’s only twelve, bless her, and she wasn’t trying to be cruel, but honestly, I look around a hundred. My nana had a face like one of those old maps, all wrinkled and sun damaged, and I’m not far behind her.
As soon as it pinged up on my screen, I rushed to ask Kieran if I look that bad in real life. He told me I was mad and hadn’t a clue what I was on about, that I looked grand and exactly the same as I always did, but he was watching some bit of the World Cup on television, men in green and purple playing other men in blue and pink, so he was being even more unobservant than usual. That’s as close as you’ll get to a compliment from an Irish fella anyway. One time I got a spray tan for a wedding, and he told me that it ‘took the raw look off me’. So not exactly a silver-tongued devil, my husband, but still.
Stupidly, I then went to ask the same question of Ellie. She said that the picture was absolutely accurate and that was exactly how I looked and it was fine. I think she knew it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but she’s fifteen and doesn’t see why she has to be nice to the woman who gave birth to her.
Turning fifty hasn’t bothered me that much up to now, and anyway, fifty is the new forty they say. Or people of my age say. It’s funny how your perception of old keeps changing. When I was Ellie’s age, anyone over fifty was over the hill and there was no difference between sixty and ninety. But that’s changed. Mam told me about a woman in her dancing class who died at seventy-eight. ‘Ah, she was no age,’ I heard myself say. Mad.
I give up trying to flatten my eye bags. The towel I have wrapped around me is gaping at my middle. Towels can’t shrink, I don’t think, so I must be getting broader as well as saggier. Which would explain why I’m having a bit of a struggle with my garda uniform. The seam at the top of my thigh split the other day, and I had to get Mam to fix it. I noticed when she returned the trousers, she’d let the waist of them out a bit, the way she quietly does with the mother-of-the-bride dresses when the mother in question has failed to stick to her faithful promise to lose a stone before the big day.
So that was depressing, even though it was kind of Mam.
A meme that popped up on Facebook says people see themselves as four times better looking than they actually are, though how that can be quantified, I’ve no idea. But there is probably a grain of truth in it, because up until yesterday I thought I looked grand. Not a Kardashian, obviously, but just fine. A middle-aged Irishwoman, with a body that created two human beings who now run around wreaking havoc on the planet, or at least on our house. And though Kieran isn’t a man for flowery compliments, he says I look nice, and, well, he fancies me. So there’s that, I suppose. But Kate’s picture has rattled me, and now all I can think is, I have to do something.
Gerry the hairdresser already convinced me to put in a few blond highlights to soften up the greys that insist on sprouting from my head, but I’m not doing that again. I’m a brunette, naturally so for years and in recent years with a little help. He’d said the blond would look much better, and he summoned a gaggle of juniors to crowd around me when it was done, all of them oohing and aahing, which I took as a sure sign that Gerry knew it was desperate on me too. The juniors never got called over when I had my roots touched up warm chestnut. I’ve held this theory for years: If the young hairdressers crowd around making complimentary noises on your new hairdo, it’s time to buy a hat; if they don’t make a peep, it’s probably fine.
Kate and Ellie had exchanged a silent conversation when I walked in that day with the new hair, and my worst fears were confirmed. Kieran didn’t notice, of course. That man is half blind, I’m convinced of it, and when I pointed it out, he said it was nice, easier to keep. Whatever that meant. I doubt that anyone ever told Kim Kardashian that her hair is easy to keep.
Getting old isn’t fair on us women. Kieran looks better now than he did as a young fella. His hair is going silvery grey, and even the slight paunch of his belly serves to make him look cuddly and handsome. He is going all silver fox, and I am turning frumpy, soft and distinctly middle-aged. I’m not vain, I swear, but honest to God, th
is is hard to bear.
In the bedroom, I blow-dry my hair as best I can and apply some make-up, trying to avoid the increasing number of lines on my face where foundation, instead of enhancing my looks, seems to settle in the cracks like one of those old medieval paintings.
Maybe I should get Botox. Everyone is doing it nowadays apparently.
Sharon tells me not to bother going to a fancy place, that there is a woman doing it in her garage out the Headford road. The idea of injecting a form of botulism into my face in a swish clinic in Galway already fills me with terror, so the prospect of a discount service by a woman who’s done a one-day training course, wielding a syringe in a space carved out from old pots of paint and stepladders, doesn’t fill me with confidence. But it is tempting to let nature be enhanced.
If I start that, though, where will it end? Suck some fat from my tummy, sharpen up my softened jaw, perk up the boobs that are succumbing to gravity more and more with every passing year? Well, if I don’t, soon my bra will be around my waist. Honestly, time is a cruel thing.
Kieran and I are going out with Sharon and Trevor tonight. It’s Trevor’s birthday, and Sharon’s present to him is a night off from her cooking. Sharon’s my best friend since junior infants, and she’s the worst cook known to man. She, Trevor and her son, Sean, live mostly on Pot Noodles and sandwiches as far as I can see. They don’t seem to mind, though, and Sharon is as thin as a rail despite it, the lucky wagon. No wonder she can wear the most fashionable clothes known to woman and not look like mutton dressed as lamb.
I had been planning to wear my new orange top and black jeans, but now all I can see about my body is lumps and bumps, so I’ll have to come up with something more concealing.
I rummage in the wardrobe and pull out a dress, a wine wraparound that Mam gave me last Christmas, and which she assured me would hide a multitude of sins. Mam has a great eye for clothes, which is just as well, as she owns the shop that dresses the female population of Ballycarrick.
I extract a shapewear slip from my drawer and wriggle into the wretched flesh-coloured thing. By the way, if your flesh is that colour, you’ve bigger problems than a lumpy dress, but I digress. The straps dig into my shoulders, but needs must, and I slip the dress over it. I don’t look too bad, but then I realise my milk bottle–white legs would frighten the dogs. I need tights. More rummaging in the sock drawer, and under a pile of Kieran’s big work socks, which he wears inside his steel-capped boots, and a random pink ankle sock with frills that must have been Kate’s when she was in nursery, I find a pair of inexplicably named ‘rose quartz’ coloured tights. I give a sigh of relief.
But in my haste to pull them on, I stick my finger through the delicate fabric.
My throat tightens. Things are not going my way today. The station was crazy busy all day, so I was late getting home from work, we’re due in the
restaurant in an hour, and I have to drive because Kieran is meeting me there. He’s always working late; he’s so busy with his roofing business these days. He’s desperate to recruit more help, but qualified roofers are hard to find and he hasn’t time to train an apprentice. And he had to call to his mother after work as well, some crisis apparently. Knowing my monster-in-law, the crisis will be nothing, but she does like her power games. She likes to show me that Kieran might be my husband but he was her son first. Nora Munroe was put on this earth to test me; of that I have no doubt.
I can’t resort to spray tan. I can’t get back into the shower, as I’ve done my hair and make-up, so I’ll have to run out to the chemist for more tights.
I drag the dress over my head and throw it on the bed, pull down the slip that allegedly sucks everything in – what on earth do they make those things of? Titanium? I pull on a hoodie and a pair of leggings and hurry downstairs, grabbing my car keys from where I left them on the hall table.
I can see Ellie sitting in the kitchen, on her phone that she never lets out of her hand.
I stick my head around the door. ‘I’ve to get tights. I’ll be back in twenty minutes.’
‘Don’t get those disgusting brown ones you always get.’ She never takes her eyes off the phone.
I bite back a sharp response. Ellie is the final arbiter, according to herself, on what is cool and what is not. But I can’t just let her rudeness slide. ‘It shouldn’t matter to you what kind I get –’
‘“The apparel oft proclaims the man”,’ she quotes superciliously. She is involved in youth theatre, and to hear her, you’d swear she is the next Kenneth Branagh. She’s quoting things at us all the time. It drives me daft.
I decide to let it slide after all. A teenage hissy fit or me fuming at her isn’t going to help this situation. ‘There’s a fish pie in the fridge. Pop it in the oven for yourself and Kate – she’ll be starving when she comes in after running around for two hours at camogie training.’
Ellie doesn’t answer.
‘Ellie?’ I repeat, with a hint of exasperation.
She chuckles at something on the screen.
‘Ellie, the pie!’ I snap. I could give in and do it myself, but I’m sick of this.
‘All right, all right,’ she snaps back, like I’ve not had to ask several times. ‘The pie, I know. I’ll do it.’ She gives a truly theatrical sigh, as if she is the most put-upon victim of child labour ever imagined.
I leave before I scream and drive to the chemist for tights. It’s the only place that sells them that will still be open at six.
Julie Dullea is behind the counter; the chemist’s was her father’s before hers, and I often wonder why she never went further afield. Although look who’s talking.
‘Hi, Mags, can I help you?’ she asks.
‘Not unless you have a magic wand and a time machine to make me look twenty-one again. How do you do it, Julie?’ She was in my class at scho
ol, but she looks way younger than me. She has all the creams for anti-ageing at her fingertips; that must be it. She never had kids either. That could also be it. She is fit and always groomed to perfection, her short blond hair in a cute pixie style that makes her look even younger.
‘Mags, you’re a beautiful woman,’ Julie says encouragingly. ‘And doesn’t your husband adore you. I see the way he smiles at you.’
I feel guilty then for being so caught up about my looks. Julie is such a lovely person as well as being gorgeous, but she is single. It is a sad story. She was engaged years ago to a lad from Barna, but he was killed in a motorbike accident. Her heart was broken, and that was it for her. Some women are like that; they can only love once. Maybe she’ll move on one day. It took my mam years after my father died. She was in her seventies before she finally fell in love again and married her longtime friend – and owner of Dillon’s Menswear in Ballycarrick – Joe Dillon. Apparently, Joe had been admiring Marie from a distance for donkey’s years but could never drum up the guts to say anything during their weekly lunches in the Samovar. It wasn’t until Mam took up dancing with a very distinguished Filipino doctor that Joe decided he’d better strike or forever keep his peace. He did, and Mam had a dilemma between the pair of them, but in the end, Joe won.
I examine the display of what Ellie calls ‘disgusting brown’ tights. They are in fact skin coloured – not the colour of my skin, you understand, or the skin of anyone from Ballycarrick, hence the need for them, but the much more attractive smooth tanned skin of people in Barbados or Spain or somewhere.
‘How is your mother, Mags?’ Julie asks. Maybe she’s been thinking the same as me, about Mam getting married last year.
I smile as I go up with my tights. ‘Happier than she’s been for years.’
‘Still not planning to retire from the boutique?’
‘Not a bit of it.’ I pay by tapping my card. ‘Sure she’s only young yet, or so she says if Joe dares suggest calling it a day.’
Julie laughs. ‘I suppose you’re as young as you feel.’
Which makes me about eighty, older than my own mother. OK. I’m clearly just in a mood, I know. Nothing is right. Don’t mind me.
We’ve decided to go local instead of to the Carrick Arms Hotel, as Sharon and I usually do for the big occasions. Tatiana, who owns the Samovar, has just turned the back room of the pub into a restaurant, and the word on the street is that the food is as good as her coffee.
Plus we love Tatiana and want to show her our support. She is a hilarious character and such an addition to Ballycarrick. She’s stunningly gorgeous in a kind of terrifying way. She basically took this pub, McLoughlin’s as it was known, from her then husband ‘Leery Benny’ and gave him the high road. Benny thought he was getting some docile little Russian bride on the internet who’d be eternally grateful to him for rescuing her, but Tatiana was nobody’s victim, and she soon had the measure of her new lecherous husband. So not long after her arrival, Benny moved to England, leaving Tatiana the pub, and that was that. Why he did it, or what hold she had over him to make him up sticks like that, has been the source of much Ballycarrick speculation, but nobody knows the truth.
I arrive outside the pub at the same time as Kieran, and he hugs me and tells me how great I look, disgusting brown tights and all. In fact he squeezes me so hard that between that and the shapewear, my head nearly pops off like a cork.
He releases me, I gasp for breath, and we walk hand in hand into the magnificent lounge bar. On the outside the Samovar looks like any pub you’ll find in any street in Ireland, but inside, it’s like nothing you’d expect. Tatiana has completely overhauled the tired dark wood and sticky carpet décor of Benny’s time and turned the place into sort of a mixture of industrial chic, with brick walls and exposed iron girders, and 1920s speakeasy, with luxurious but really comfortable domestic furniture and some truly quirky pieces. A scarlet velvet chaise longue here, a tasselled standard lamp there, and all around the walls are pictures in gold frames, depicting the scenes and people of Vladivostok, where Tatiana is from, and also photos of the regulars. It makes me smile every time I go to the ladies to see a picture of Joe Dillon and his daughter, Clare, and then in the next frame is Yul Brynner the actor, who was apparently a friend of Tatiana’s dad. So you see, it’s a bit of a mad old place, but everyone loves it now.
‘Is everything OK, love?’ I ask as we take two stools at the bar. It’s not that he’s not usually affectionate, but I sensed something else in that mighty hug – a craving for comfort maybe.
‘Yeah…I think so.’
He looks worried. ‘Mam and Dad are having a bit of a spat, but they won’t say what it’s about. You know Dad. He doesn’t say much at the best of times.’
‘Mm.’ Understatement of the century. Kieran’s father is nice enough, I suppose, but he never speaks, like almost not a word. I’ve heard about twenty sentences out of his mouth in the sixteen years we’ve been married.
‘And Mam always wants to make out everything is perfect in the House of Munroe. It was strange, though. She kept showing me this picture of her holding me when I was a baby and telling me how glad she is she had me, because I’ve turned out so well, with my family and my roofing business and everything.’
That is strange. Nora doesn’t usually praise Kieran’s life. To be honest she is still annoyed at him for marrying ‘beneath him’, to a mere sergeant in the guards; she’d hoped he’d marry a bit higher up the social ladder, like his three sisters. Nora isn’t capable of saying her son-in-law Fergus’s name without adding ‘very high up in the Bank of Ireland’, and Seamus, her second son-in-law, is always the ‘top man in cardiology in Galway University Hospital’. Leonard is a school principal, but it’s a posh school, so he’s ‘very well respected in the field of private education’.
I dread to think what my add-on is. ‘Very low down in the guards’, I imagine.
We had a big falling out a few years ago when I got sick of her snide remarks. In Nora’s estimation, my house is too messy – well, it is, but four people live there, not just me – I don’t cook enough home-made meals and Kieran always looks scruffy. I mean, come on – her grown adult son doesn’t dress in top hat and tails and it’s my fault? We’ve patched it up now, in that Irish way of never discussing it again and carrying on as if nothing had happened, but I suspect Nora Munroe is never going to be my biggest fan.
Kieran always tells me to ignore her. He’s good to her, but he’s always backed me when she sniffs about me not being classy enough, and he says she
drives him daft too with her notions.
Like last year she horrified the whole family. She went a bit quare in the head and got obsessed with an American politician, some distant relative of ‘Fergus, who is very high up in the Bank of Ireland’. To be fair to him, Fergus explained at every chance he got that he didn’t know the man nor the sky above him, but it made no difference. Nora was going to be the reason Ballycarrick had its American moment. Ballyporeen had Reagan, Wexford had Kennedy, County Down had the Bush family, Mayo had Biden, Moneygall in County Offaly even dug up a few relatives for Barack Obama. And Nora was going to have her day, hell or high water. She decorated the house with American flags and everything. She was a laughingstock in the town because of it, until it all came crashing down because your man, whatever his name was, dropped out of public life due to some scandal or another – don’t ask me what – and ‘needed to spend more time with his family’. So that, to the intense relief of the Munroes and the rest of Ballycarrick, was that.
Nora has been subdued for months since then, and I’ve seen even less of her than normal. In fact, now that I think about it, I’ve not seen either her or Kevin in ages.
We’re a bit early, and our table isn’t ready yet, so we order a couple of drinks at the bar. Kieran has a pint of Guinness, and I get a red wine. I’d been going to stick to fizzy water, as we have both my car and Kieran’s van with us, but thinking about Nora makes me want to drink, and I decide we can get a taxi home then back in the morning; we’re only a couple of miles outside the town, so it won’t break the bank.
‘Thanks, Tatiana,’ I say as she puts down our drinks.
‘You’re welcome,’ she says sternly. She isn’t a smiler, or a woman to use more words than strictly necessary, but she has a kind heart, and she runs this place so well that I don’t think I’ve ever had to come in here with my garda hat on to deal with anyone. I asked her once how she did it, and she gave me her typically blunt but accurate answer.
‘Other bars give drink to people when they are already drunk. That is greedy and stupid. Me? No. I stop giving drink before that, and it is better for everyone. Nice people now come here, your mother, Joe, you and Kieran, Sharon and Trevor, because you know there will not be some fool talking rubbish, or a fight, or something stupid like this.’
She’s dead right. When Benny was in charge, we wouldn’t have dreamed of coming in, unless I had to as the local sergeant. But now the place is lovely and peaceful.
Sharon and Trevor arrive at the same time as the drinks, and me and Sharon embrace each other while Trevor and Kieran shake hands and do a bit of shoulder slapping. Sharon and I have been best friends coming up on forty-six years. We’ve rarely had a fight, just one or two squabbles over the years but nothing big really. Trevor and Kieran get on great, thank goodness. Kieran calls a Guinness for Trevor and a vodka and tonic for Shar, and the two men sidle up the bar together, towards the telly, where a team in blue and white is playing a team in red and yellow in whatever bit of the World
Cup is on at the moment.
Sharon takes Kieran’s stool at the bar. She looks gorgeous in a glittery shirt and tight jeans, as stylish as ever. ‘How’s everything, Mags?’
‘Pretty much the same as when I spoke to you yesterday. How’d it go this afternoon?’
She’s applied for the position of manager in a graphics place in Galway, and I’m dying to find out how the interview went. Graphics wouldn’t be her first choice of career; she always worked in fashion retail when we were young. But then she married Danny Boylan, who was loaded, and became a stay-at-home mother, and then when they broke up, she kind of disintegrated and did nothing for ages, so now she’s desperate to get a proper job and earn some money.
Trevor’s a musician with his own band, Tequila Mockingbird, and used to be in big demand at pubs and nightclubs and things like that. But since Covid, people have changed their habits a lot. People go to the pub less now; it’s cheaper and easier to have people round and eat and drink with them in your own house and not worry about getting a taxi home. So as a result, he’s not flush with money. Plus Sharon’s still refusing to look for a single penny from her slimy ex, ...
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