Every big Irish family has one. The quiet one. You can spot them right away in the
back row of faded family photographs. They’ll be the one with a sober expression
and a hand-me-down sweater that’s slightly too big on their shoulders. They’ll be
the one looking away to the side as everyone else pushes and giggles and pulls silly
faces. They’ll be the one looking slightly detached as everyone else fights to be
the centre of attention. The quiet one notices details: a weary sigh, a flirtatious
wink, a nihilistic tendency. They can sense things that no-one else can. But most
of the time there’s no-one to tell, no-one else to share things with, no-one who’ll
listen. It’s lonely being the quiet one. Look at the photograph again. It’s cracked
now and folded down the middle but the story is all there, already written.
Ten years from now, Daddy, so handsome and popular, will have an affair with a girl
half his age; a brown-eyed girl with long dark hair who works in a flyblown television
shop in the town centre. He won’t be kind to her but she’ll be too young to know
any better. Within days of their first kiss the girl’s entire existence will be reduced
to waiting for his phone calls and hoping she isn’t pregnant. They’ll think they
are clever. They’ll think nobody has noticed they are having an affair but they’ll
Everyone will notice. Everyone except poor Mummy with her A-line skirts and her Rosary
beads, and who in their right mind is going to tell her the whole town is talking
about her? Soon the brown-eyed girl will be branded a heartless home-wrecker. And
it’ll be too late for her to find a nice boy her own age. She’ll always be known
as “that brazen piece” from the television shop who led a married man astray.
Fifteen years from now, Mummy, poor house-proud Mummy with her stiff arrangements
of fresh flowers and her little dishes of pot pourri, will finally find out about
the affair and start secretly drinking white wine from a box she’ll hide under the
kitchen sink. She’ll let herself go with the unfairness of it all. She’ll stop getting
her hair done and throw her bronze lipstick in the bin. She’ll give the children
fivers to buy burgers and chips at the cheap café round the corner because she’ll
lose heart in the palaver of meat-and-two-veg every night. She’ll stop going to school
meetings, and even to Mass, because she won’t be able to bear the neighbours boring
holes in her back. At night she’ll lie awake crying over the hard labours she had,
all the housework she did, wondering why she bothered; wondering if all men are the
She won’t leave her husband though because she has no imagination and because she
still associates single mothers with the long-extinct Magdalene Laundries. Bad enough
when your husband cheats on you, she’ll think, but imagine what might happen to an
unhappy woman in one of those nightmare places. Once they get you in there there’s
no telling what they might do to you, shave your hair off, drug you up, and the staff
are all perverts.
And her husband won’t leave her because he’s still in denial, he still thinks nobody
knows what he is doing, he still thinks a handsome man like him is entitled to a
house-proud wife and a mistress that knows her place. They don’t sleep together any
more, of course, that would be too traumatic for Mummy. Daddy will move into the
spare room. The brown-eyed girl will rent a bed-sit and wait for an engagement ring
that never comes. The children will leave home as soon as they can; emotionally scarred
for life. Forever equating marriage and babies with lies and despair. Mummy and Daddy
will have no family weddings to attend, no grandchildren to cluck over.
Twenty years from now Big Sister will realise she’s gay but she’ll never tell anyone,
never come out of the closet, never admit her sexuality to a living soul. Instead
she’ll cultivate a sour disposition to deter men from ever asking her out. She’ll
buy a big saloon car and spend hours fussing over the alloy wheels and power steering.
She’ll wear an anorak to work and be very sarcastic to the junior staff, especially
to the prettier girls. She’ll tell the only man who will ever ask her out that she
cannot marry anyone, ever, because she has a terrible phobia of childbirth. She’ll
buy a dog and smack it when it cries. Eventually she’ll tire of walking the dog and
give it to an animal shelter and resign herself to living alone.
Big Sister will be made manager at the factory where she works. With no children
to hold her back her career will go from strength to strength. She will have no friends.
She will have no lovers. The closest she will get to sex will be occasionally finding
a potato up her exhaust pipe. In her twilight years she will become obsessed with
saving money-off coupons from the local newspaper.
Twenty-five years from now Little Sister, with her expensive handbags and sparkly
hair-clips, will take an overdose because someone will tell her casually in the street
that her nickname at school was Tit-less. How funny! But Little Sister will not laugh.
Years and years they called her that behind her back and she never knew. Years and
years they laughed at her, after all the care she took with her appearance. The idea
of it drives her over the edge. On her way home from the shops she’ll call into the
The funeral will be mortifying for the family, of course. Suicide is very common
in Ireland but nobody likes to talk about it. It’s not patriotic to suggest that
being Irish isn’t enough of a thing in itself to guard against suicidal thoughts.
And so nothing will be said about the easy availability of painkillers. And nothing
will be said about depression, about mental health in general. A dreadful tragedy,
an awful accident, that’s all they’ll say, over lukewarm tea and turkey sandwiches
in Kelly’s hotel. And isn’t it a scandal what Kelly’s is charging for tea and sandwiches?
A tenner a head for two rounds of plain bread and a cash-and-carry tea-bag? No wonder
Tommy Kelly drives a Lexus. At least Dick Turpin wore a mask, they’ll say.
Thirty years from now Twin Brothers will be laughing and joking in the front seats
of a brand new car, the plastic still on the head-rests, during the worst thunderstorm
in decades. The road will be partially flooded. The streetlights will not be working.
The car will be going too fast. The radio will be playing Games Without Frontiers
by Peter Gabriel. The car will veer off the road and straight into an ancient stone
wall. Forty years of laughing and joking will come to a sudden stop.
A double funeral, two matching coffins, football jerseys laid across them, no wives
and children to sob over them, a huge silent crowd with their heads bowed in the
chapel. No mention of reckless driving will be made during the eulogy. Irish women
are respected in death but Irish men are revered beyond reason. After the funeral
of his twin sons Daddy will break up with the brown-eyed girl (now a middle-aged
woman) and find religion. This isn’t a hard thing for him to do because the brown-eyed
girl will be losing her looks. However Daddy’s plan to enjoy his retirement years
on the golf course will be disrupted when Mummy goes to London on a shopping trip,
meets a nice man in Harrod’s department store, and never comes home again. Mummy
will discover, at the age of sixty-one, what it feels like to kiss a kind man.
Daddy will ask his ex-mistress to take him back but she will say no. She will know
he only wants her now to do the housework. She will know that if she moved into the
house with him now he wouldn’t even let her buy new wallpaper for the sitting room.
She will know he wouldn’t even choose to be buried with her when the time came. He’s
never loved her at all, has he? Six months after their final argument the brown-eyed
girl will marry a retired soldier from Yorkshire that she met online. Daddy will
be seething that he’s lost not one, but two, women to English men.
The years will go by. Three graves will be tidied up for Cemetery Sunday each year
by a chain-smoking “youth” doing community service. Mummy and Daddy will visit their
children’s graves on alternate years. Eventually the Council will ban wind-chimes,
all manner of toys, laminated poems and plastic flowers from the graveyard. Life
is so messy, they’ll say. But death should be neat and tidy.
The photographer puts away his camera. The family laughs, chatters, gossips, teases
and disperses. The quiet one senses all these things in the future. But they cannot
tell anyone. And even if they could, nobody would listen. It’s lonely being the quiet
one. What the quiet one doesn’t sense though, doesn’t see, what they couldn’t possibly
know, is that someday in the future, just an ordinary day with nothing magical at
all in the air, they will finally meet the quiet one from another big Irish family,
and love will blossom. Neither of them will be able to save their secretive, hopeless,
reckless families from themselves. But love will lessen the loneliness and two quiet
ones will together make a beautiful couple. Something good will come out of chaos.
And in the end that’s all that matters.