7pm, Sligo, my eldest brother’s house. My husband and I have just arrived for a family visit.
My youngest brother, who flew here from Geneva earlier, got first dibs on staying in my eldest brother’s house.
So he is staying here in a luxuriously well-appointed building and we, the late arrivals, are staying with my youngest sister in The Visitors’ Shed.
I raise the issue of my brother’s first dibs with him.
“You’re 47,” I say, “you’ve been an aid worker in god-forsaken places since you were 18. You’ve got a bullet-wound in your shoulder.”
“You have to be a certain kind of hardy for the Visitors’ Shed,” he says.
“You’ve been held at gunpoint by Afghans,” I say.
“A very specific kind of hardy,” he says.
“You’ve been chased by an elephant,” I say, “and bombed in Bosnia but you don’t fancy the ******* shed?”
“You lived in an old farmhouse,” he says, “with children and ponies and crows up chimneys. You lived just like your sister. You have what it takes.”
“I lived just like her,” I say, “apart from the cooking thing.”
For small details are important in families which do not like to let its members escape the terrible sorriness of their pasts and enjoy storing small details so as to be able to remind each other of it.
“Ok, apart from the cooking,” he says.
“I’m never going to be allowed to forget it,” my sister says, “just because I made a bad minestrone once.”
“And all your children looked at it,” my husband says, “and said — what was it again? Oh yes — that they wished they were blind.”
“Never mind that,” my brother says, “what about the mince and peaches?”
“Never mind that,” my husband says, “what about the pike and pineapple?”
“Just out of interest,” I say, “who’s making Sunday lunch?”
My brother, his Spanish wife, my husband and I all look at each other.
These looks are intense.
“Never mind the sorriness of our pasts,” these looks says, “it is the sorriness of the future we must worry about now.”
“I can make a big paella,” my sister-in-law says.
“Fantastic,” I say, “I’ll help.”
“Fantastic,” my brother says, “I’ll help.”
“Fantastic,” my husband says, “we’ll all help.”
“I’ve got Sunday lunch sorted,” my sister says.
“I am going to redeem myself, once and for all. Chickens defrosting right now as I speak.”
My husband and I are in the shed, where, having been kept awake all night by new lambs bleating, we are finally roused by Lola, my five year old niece who has come to see how many pussy-willow buds she can fit into our ears.
There has been a “small miscalculation with sell-by dates” in the kitchen: two gone-off chickens have been discarded and I have dispatched my husband to fetch replacements from the supermarket.
It is important, my sister says, that my brother doesn’t find out about the small miscalculation.
I’m drinking coffee in my sister’s conservatory, when my brother and his Spanish wife arrive.
My sister’s husband Rudi is deep in conversation with a neighbouring small-holder, who has dropped by to visit.
“What are dey tockeen about?” my sister-in-law says.
“Parasites,” I say.
“But what are dey tockeen about dees for?”
“Rudi thinks he found a parasite this morning,” I say.
“Where?” my Spanish sister-in-law says, looking terrified.
“I’m too frightened to ask,” I say, “but I definitely heard them mention the words lambs and tapeworm.”
“I wish I was deaf,” my brother says.
The two replacement chickens are in the oven.
My brother wanders into the kitchen. He joins me at the back door, where I am staring out of its window.
“Smells a bit funny in here,” he says, “what are we having?”
“The best Sunday lunch ever,” my sister shouts with great cheer.
“Seriously,” he asks me, “what are we having?”
“Mercifully,” I say, “not that,” and point out of the window.
Together we gaze at the two chickens my sister has discarded outside. They rest side by side on tin platters. On top of each chicken is perched a white cat. The cats stare back at us, with chicken-blood grimaces.
“Quite a tableau,” I say.
“I wish I was blind,” my brother says.
“I told you I’d redeem myself,” my sister shouts.
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