Kitchen by Catherine Kirwan

by Catherine Kirwan


In my defence, it was only the once it happened. But I keep thinking it’s a sign of something more. It doesn’t help that I’m reminded every time I’m in the kitchen. I’m browning meat for a casserole. I reach into the press for the salt and pepper, and I remember. And I try to put it out of my mind. But I can’t. And I snap at one of the kids and they don’t know why. And I keep trying to stop thinking about it. And I fail.

They say the devil makes work for idle hands, but I never had a minute. Except for the time when Seamus was up in Mayo. We were keeping it quiet because it was to do with the pipeline, and you don’t know where you’re talking, and who’s in favour of the Shell to Sea crowd, and who isn’t. I’m half in favour of them myself, but Seamus said we didn’t have a choice and I knew he was right. I didn’t like him going up there all the same, with all the stuff you’d see on Youtube, and the ecowarriors, and the whole bog ready to blow in a gigantic orange burst of gas and turf, if only anyone had a match.

If only Seamus had finished the job on the presses. It wasn’t as if he was doing anything else most of the time. In fairness, he was collecting the kids from school, so we were saving on childcare, but I’d get in from work to find the four of them, mouths open, waiting for me to tell them what we were having for dinner and what they were having for lunch the next day and where the P.E. gear was and where Seamus had put his Munster jersey. And-and-and-and-and. 

I used to love watching him after he came in from work. He’d have hat hair after taking off the safety helmet. He’d fling himself on the sofa with the remote and shout comments over to me at the cooker, telling me what had happened during the day, and how far behind or ahead they were on the job. I’d throw in an ‘oh’ or a ‘janey mac' to keep it going, but it was the look and the sound of him I liked, more than what he was saying. I knew it wasn’t easy for him, going from up-to-ninety-twenty-four-seven with the Plant Hire work, to hanging, lying, around the house. The idleness got in on him after a while, and he wouldn’t talk about it, wouldn’t re-train. 

“I’m not depressed,” he said. “I’m temporarily unemployed.”

“Which is depressing,” I said.

“It might be,” he said. “Except I’m not depressed.”

After a few rounds of that, I kept my mouth shut. Did what I could to keep the family afloat. Waited for him to get up off his fecking arse. 

But, heading on for four years, there was no turn in the road and I was racking my brains trying to think of something, anything, for him to do. I hit on the kitchen. We could stretch to a paint job and new handles. Seamus was mad into the idea. We went to Woodies, a big Sunday outing, God help us, to get supplies and then to McDonald’s on the way home. My card took a battering, but you should have seen the kids’ faces. They were so easily pleased it makes me cry to remember. We have three under ten, two girls and a boy, part of the lost generation of Irish smallies who missed out on the trip to Lapland because their parents were too broke and too broken. I have to keep telling myself that they’re nothing to do with this. 

When I got home from work on the Monday, Seamus had taken off all the old cabinet-length brushed-steel handles. He’d be filling and sanding on the Tuesday, undercoating on the Wednesday and painting on the Thursday. On the Friday, he’d put on the pewter-effect half-moon handles and, by the weekend, we’d have a new kitchen and a fresh start. 

He never got past the undercoat. On the Wednesday, he got a call from Tony O’Brien in Mogeely to say that he had a three-day cash job for him. 

“The kitchen can wait,” Seamus said. “It’s an improvement already, and it’ll take no time to finish.”

He got a dribble of work as the spring brightened, days here and there, nothing much. Then, four and a half months later, with the kids starting summer holidays, he got the month in Mayo. 

I stood watching him as he loaded up the van. Smiling he was, with his sunglasses, those bug-eyed ones that I hate, pushed up on his head. I hadn’t seen them for a while.

“You could finish the work on the kitchen before you go,” I wanted to say. 

But I bit the inside of my bottom lip, and said nothing. Again. 

A few days later, I packed the kids off to my sister’s in Kerry and did the final coat over three evenings after work. I used a ton of masking tape and stood back every so often to survey my handiwork. I found it relaxing. Seamus and the kids gone, John Creedon on the radio, the long balmy evenings, the patio door open. On the third evening, I sat outside on the sun lounger until it got dark. I noticed that my shoulders had dropped, they’ve been up around my ears for years, and that my breath was slower and deeper. I kept breathing in and out through my mouth, great lungfuls of fresh air, and I stretched out on the lounger, my body long, feeling the blood come back into me. And I kept breathing, just breathing. 

 When I came back in and saw my pristine, elegant, dove-grey presses, I couldn’t bear the thought of grubby finger marks on the paint. I swore I’d have the job finished before they came back. No bother at all. The parish was full of unemployed carpenters. But I couldn’t ask someone we knew. Not to do something that Seamus could have, should have, done. 

So, I went on the net and picked a name with no connection to the immediate locality. I’d go with the ‘I wanted to surprise you’ thing. Seamus might sulk but, secretly, he’d be delighted. He is Bob the Builder, and once he has his diggers and dumper trucks to play with, he loses whatever small bit of interest he has in domesticity.

Anyway, I rang the carpenter the following morning and he said that he was working near Killeagh and that it sounded like a small job and that he could call on his way home, around half six, if it suited. I said I’d text him directions and told him to ring me if he got lost. He laughed and said he thought he’d manage. He sounded like he knew what he was doing and I felt myself getting excited as the afternoon went on. I was imagining myself sitting back admiring the handles, or them glinting after I’d given them a buff with one of those soft yellow dusters. 

The carpenter was a bit early, and he said he’d get stuck in straightaway. I showed him the handles and where I wanted them and he said ‘You’re going vintage, I see’ and laughed that easy laugh again. I went upstairs intending to change my clothes but I didn’t and I came back down again and started working my way through a pile of ironing. 

“Nice house,” he said. 

I found myself telling him all about the struggle to get planning and how in the end I wondered was it worth it, with the cost of heating the huge echoey open plan rooms with the high ceilings and all the glass and us crippled with the mortgage, though at least we had the tracker interest rate still, but if we lost that we’d be in big trouble. 

“Don’t tell me but ask me,” he said. 

And his story was even worse because his wife had been made redundant and he was only scraping by with odd jobs now and then, that he was delighted with, ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he said. But they were on interest only and honestly, he’d love to drive up to Bankcentre and throw the keys at them. And I laughed and said ‘Ah don’t do that’ and he laughed as well and he kind of gave me a look. And I looked away. But I looked at him again, and he had turned back to the job, and I was disappointed. 

We stayed quiet after that, but all the time I could feel a tingle on my skin and a lightness in my belly and I thought about how there was something familiar and different about us in the kitchen together. I thought about Seamus, and the way things were between us. And I looked up again, and I knew that it was the same for the carpenter, and his wife, and that he knew I knew.

I’d say he had the job done in about forty minutes and it was perfect. He only charged thirty euro and I said Holy God wouldn’t he take more, but he wouldn’t and then I said that if ever I had another job he’d be the top of my list, not that I expected him to charge so little the next time, and he said ‘Are you calling me cheap or something?’ and I laughed again and when he was gone I had to go into the front room for a sit down. 

After a while, I remembered the iron and went into the kitchen and unplugged it. I smiled as I passed the cupboards and thought how silly I’d been with the carpenter, even though I hadn’t felt silly, exactly. I stopped for a moment, closed my eyes and leaned back against the worktop. I wasn’t thinking of anything but I felt myself drifting away and I had to put my two hands behind me to steady myself. I held onto the edge of the worktop and I could feel the edges digging into my palms. I heard my phone buzzing. 

‘Hope ur still happy with de vintage look.’

For a second, I didn’t know who the text was from. 

I replied. ‘Def. Looks fab. Ta again.’

Buzzbuzz. 'Ur welcome. U don’t seem like old-fashioned girl?’

Instant reply. ‘LOL,’ thinking ‘Jesus, what am I doing?’

Buzzbuzz. ‘I was wondering if I left one of my tools behind. Should I come back and maybe u help me look 4 it?’

Oh. No reply.

Buzzbuzz. ‘Sorry. See, told u I woz cheap. Sorry again.’

Instant reply. ‘No is ok. Where r u?’ 

Buzzbuzz. ‘Just down road from u. Pulled in. Will I come back?’

Instant reply. ‘Yes’.

Yes. No questioning, no pondering, no examination of conscience, just yes. I opened the door and I kissed him in the hall and I dragged him into the kitchen and I had him like he was a feed of freshly boiled floury spuds dripping with butter. 

Afterwards, I watched him getting dressed and as he stood, silhouetted in the evening light. 

“That was a surprise,” he said. 

“For me as well,” I said, though maybe it wasn’t. 

“I hope you don’t think I do things like this all the time,” he said. 

“I don’t,” I said, and smiled. 

“What’s the smile for?”

“Nothing,” I said. 

But I was thinking that it was like something a woman would say. And then he asked me if I was going to see him out and I said that I would, but not yet. 

When the carpenter was gone, I went upstairs to bed and wrapped myself in the sheets. I looked at the clock. It was just ten and not yet fully dark, less than four hours gone by. 

I’ve been waiting for the regret to kick in but the trouble is that it hasn’t and that’s what terrifies me. I can’t sleep these nights. I go to bed but, when he’s asleep, I sneak downstairs to the kitchen, to the cool of the tiles under my feet, and the click and whirr of the fridge, and the gush and shush of the dishwasher, and the drip-drip-drip of the tap.