She’s always up before him. Cormac hears her clattering around the kitchen to make sure he knows it. By the time he showers and slumps downstairs, she will already have the table set and his three Weetabix sitting in a white bowl waiting for him. He wishes she wouldn’t do that. He’s more than capable of getting his own breakfast.
And what if he decided that he didn’t feel like Weetabix this morning? Then he’d have to try to squeeze the ones from the bowl back into their flimsy plastic wrapper, which would inevitably tear, spill crumbs all over the table and onto the floor, which would make him angry and she’d stand there with a look of bewilderment on her face, even though it was all her fault, and the day would be ruined before it even started properly. He’d end up storming out, would be in a bad mood all day and then it’d be awkward coming home after school. He’d know it was his fault and that he should apologise but also that she’d love to see him grovel and he wouldn’t give her the pleasure of it.
So, he will resentfully eat the Weetabix she has put out for him and by the time he is half-way through, she will flick the switch on the already-filled kettle and put a spoon of coffee and sugar into his mug as she waits for it to boil. She’ll have it timed so that she can swap his bowl for the mug of coffee, just as he finishes the last spoonful. He’s told her before not to bother, that he can do it himself, but she never listens. The more she does for him, the more he resents her. The way she swaps the clothes on his bedroom floor for neat little piles of fresh washing while he is at school infuriates him. If he wanted them washed, he would have thrown them in the linen basket himself. She makes a big fuss about cooking dinner, especially on Sundays when she goes on about it for hours. She expects him to applaud her efforts when he’d just as soon slurp down a packet of noodles or have a frozen pizza. He can’t understand why she expects him to be grateful for things he never asked for, or wanted her to do, in the first place. By the time he leaves for school, she will have the dishwasher loaded and will be clearing the table with a look of satisfaction on her face that makes him hate her even more. She thinks she’s so goddamn perfect.
* * *
Sarah wishes Cormac would hurry up. She can tell when he is getting dressed from the rhythm of his footsteps on the ceiling above, but he hasn’t even climbed out of bed yet this morning. She doesn’t want to be nagging at him but he’s going to be late for school and she can’t deal with another phone call with the principal. She didn’t need to see Mr. Delaney’s face the last time to know that he was looking down his nose at her. The cheek of him, asking her if there were any problems at home, the way you would if a child was coming into school covered in bruises. ’No’, she’d said, cutting him off, ’We’re not like that.’
They’re not. They’re respectable go-to-school, get-a-job, pay-your-way, contribute-to-society, keep-your-house-and-affairs-tidy kind of people. Or at least they used to be. Things have become harder all round since Simon left. Cormac blames her. He’s always angry with her now. Nothing she says or does is right and it’s not fair. It wasn’t her who waltzed off into a whole new life, with a fancy apartment by the dock, a new woman and a new baby on the way. Except Simon’s girlfriend wasn’t new, far from it. It was just that Sarah hadn’t known she’d existed until the night he told her he was leaving her.
She tries to make things easier for Cormac. She never bad-mouths his dad in front of him. God knows, Simon’s given her plenty of ammunition and reason to. She even encouraged Cormac to go over and see the baby, to meet his half-brother, but he wouldn’t. He hasn’t seen his father for a while now and she’s too afraid to ask him why. She’ll just get her head bitten off. All she can do is try to be there for him, to keep things as normal as possible and hope that he’ll come round in his own time.
* * *
It’s quiet in the kitchen now, which means she has everything ready and time is getting on. Cormac can’t be bothered turning over to look at the clock but he reckons it’s at least quarter past eight. She’ll be fretting now, waiting for him to get up, trying to restrain herself from barging into the hall and roaring up the stairs at him. By the time it gets to half-eight she won’t be able to stop herself. If there was a way he could get out of the house without having to face her, he’d take it, but this isn’t one of those dumb teenage movies where there’s always a downpipe or trellis outside the window to climb down.
She’s always at him, asking him stupid questions, wanting to know what’s wrong with him. There’s nothing wrong with him. He just wants to be left alone. Why can’t she understand that? His Dad has finally got the message. Cormac told him he was under no obligation to keep seeing him every week, that they no longer had to have those contrived dinners with his girlfriend Gillian, or even worse, those depressing pub dinners with just the two of them.
He didn’t say all that to his dad’s face, of course. He texted him after the last fiasco when he’d been given money to get a taxi home. Gillian had called just as their food arrived and said the baby wouldn’t stop crying. His Dad couldn’t hide his relief at having an excuse to escape, which was fine. Cormac couldn’t stand another minute of the awful awkwardness either. There’s something completely unnatural about meeting your father out for dinner and being forced to make small talk, when you haven’t had a conversation that’s lasted longer than five minutes in years. It was like the world’s worst date ever.
* * *
Sarah checks the letter from the hospital again, afraid she’ll make a mistake about the time or the place. Dr. Bowler Ryan, Oncology Clinic, Main Building, Block B at 10.am. She’s got change for the car park, a notebook and pen to write down whatever he tells her. She doesn’t trust herself to remember everything and focussing on writing might help her stay a bit calmer too. She hasn’t told anyone what’s happened yet. Simon’s the one she used to tell this sort of news to. She had to battle her instinct to phone him after the GP had called with the results. It’s a hard habit to break after twenty years of marriage.
She hopes she’ll get seen before lunchtime so she can get home and pull herself together before Cormac comes home from school. No matter what time you get an appointment for in the hospital, you always seem to have to wait for hours to be seen. She hates those rows of plastic chairs screwed to the ground, people with god knows what coughing all around you and the TV blaring from the corner. Maybe it’s different in oncology though. They always say the hospital’s great for cancer, once you get diagnosed. She’ll have to tell Cormac at some point, she won’t be able to hide it from him for much longer. She wants to give him as much time as she can without the worry of it.
* * *
‘Cormac!’ he hears her yelling from the bottom of the stairs. ‘Cormac! It’s half eight. You have to get up. Now!’
He knew it. She’s so predictable it’s almost funny.
‘You’ll be late,’ she can’t resist adding, as if that wasn’t already completely obvious to him.
Does she really think he cares about being late for poxy school? He’s not afraid of Mr. Delaney, even if she is. She just doesn’t want him making her look bad. Pity about her. He pulls the duvet up tight around his neck and buries his face deeper into the pillow. She can shout all she wants. He is going back to sleep. He’ll go in for his second class. Maths is first and Ms. Walsh hates him and is always picking on him.
* * *
Sarah knows she should go up and drag the duvet off him and make him get up but she doesn’t want to make things worse. It’s so hard to know what the right thing to do is any more. All the fight’s gone out of her and if she had to see the simmering resentment in his eyes, she wouldn’t be able to hold herself together, not today. She puts on her coat, picks up her bag and opens the front door. She glances back at the stairs before slipping out, quietly closing the door behind her. Reaching into her bag for her phone, she switches it off, so no one, including the school, can reach her.
It’s too early to go to the hospital. She’ll drive over to the park for a while, maybe go take a look at the ducks. Cormac used to love feeding them when he was small. He was such a happy child. Even though he was a handful, she never tired of his company and his endless chatter. She hates hearing mothers complain about their children talking too much but maybe it’s different when you have lots of them. She only had Cormac and that was enough for her. She used to think parenting would get easier as your children grew up, that you’d be able to relax more. She had no idea it would get harder, so much harder.
He’ll be nicer to her when he finds out about the cancer. At least she thinks he will.
Margaret Cahill grew up in Offaly in the Irish Midlands, and now lives in Limerick. Her short stories have featured in The Ogham Stone, The Honest Ulsterman, HeadStuff, Silver Apples Magazine, Autonomy anthology (New Binary Press), Incubator Journal, Crannog Magazine, Galway Review, Limerick Magazine and Wordlegs. Her competition listings for fiction include Cuirt New Writing Prize, Over the Edge New Writer of the Year and Allingham Arts Flash Fiction. She also dabbles in writing about music and art, with non-fiction articles published on HeadStuff.org and Circa Arts Magazine. You can see more of Margaret's work at https://margaretcahillwrites.wordpress.com/
Of the story featured here, Margaret says:
‘In this story I was interested in looking at the strained dynamics of a family relationship, the resentments that build up over petty things, the way we withdraw to protect ourselves when we are hurt and how we can lash out at the people closest to us. In Battle Lines we see a mother trying too hard to make things easier for her troubled son in the wake of separating from his father. The son withdraws from both of them but it is she, his biggest advocate and the person who cares most about him, who bears the brunt of his resentment and anger, even though she has done nothing wrong. In looking at the situation from both perspectives we understand the pain they both feel but cannot share.’