Thursday, October 6, 2011

Every Sofa Tells a Story

It had begun innocently enough, as these sorts of infatuations often do.
They’d only wandered into the furniture salesroom to have a look, not to buy, but when Monica spotted the gold velvet sofa standing coyly in the centre of the store, it was love at first sight. She’d collapsed into the welcoming squishiness with a sigh of contentment and when Paul joined her and they found themselves kissing enthusiastically, transported by passion as only newlyweds can be, she knew it would be exactly right.
When they eventually came up for air, giggling at their own nerve, they saw the salesman standing over them, looking distinctly unimpressed. Monica had never laughed so hard, especially when Paul pulled out his wallet and announced flamboyantly that his gorgeous wife loved this sofa and therefore he was going to buy it for her on the spot! It had been so romantic.

In the seventeen years that followed, Monica recounted this story to anyone who ever admired the sofa. She loved telling the tale because it brought her back to a different era, before the kids were born and Paul began to work such long hours. Back then, all it took to be deliriously happy was to lie cuddling together in front of the TV, Paul rubbing her feet, she feeding him ice-cream. It had been such a happy time and the gold velvet sofa had been at the heart of it.
Over the years, the sofa had sat quietly and loyally in their lives: it was where the kids napped when they were ill, where the dog loved to curl in the afternoon sun, even where the weekend newspapers lay heaped on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It was also, one grey autumnal day, where Monica found the receipt.
She’d been plumping up the threadbare cushions that afternoon, wondering vaguely if getting the old sofa recovered in a fresh fabric would be a good idea. Paul had started to grumble that it was time it should be replaced – its shabbiness embarrassed him when they threw one of their many dinner parties. He wanted some leather monstrosity he’d seen in the designer furniture shop – the one with the matching hideous footstool that Monica hated.
The receipt fluttered to the ground just as Monica lifted the old cushions and bashed the feather filling into shape. Picking it up, she saw it was for a pair of very expensive diamond earrings, bought only days before in the high-end jewellers in town.
Happy tears sprang to her eyes immediately – so Paul did still have a romantic streak after all these years. He was obviously going to surprise her on their wedding anniversary. The thought made her heart soar with delight as she quickly shoved it back into its hiding place. Better he didn’t suspect that she knew – that would spoil the surprise.

Their anniversary dinner party the next week was a fun affair. Monica had to cook for everyone, of course, which meant she was rather red faced and flustered at the table, but she didn’t mind, mostly because she knew what was coming – Paul was going to present her with those earrings over dessert. She could hardly eat for excitement – she’d already practised her “surprised and delighted” face half a dozen times in the reflective oven door.
“Where did you get that lovely old sofa Monica?” her good friend Rita asked as she reached out for the gravy and carefully drizzled just a drop on her seared beef. Rita was fastidious about her figure – gravy was only ever to be eaten sparingly, if at all.
Monica was surprised Rita didn’t remember the story – after all she’d told it often enough. But then, ever since Rita had left her husband Dan she’d been very preoccupied. Monica had been so sad when they split – Dan was a very nice guy, but Rita had inexplicably become increasingly irritated by everything he did and said. But then Dan was definitely not the romantic type. Not like Paul.
Monica smiled fondly across the table at her wonderfully devoted husband as she began the story of how he had snapped up the sofa on a romantic whim all those years ago. Paul didn’t smile back though – instead he scowled that the salesman had persuaded them to buy the sofa against his better judgment and he’d been a fool ever to part with a bean for the great lump in the first place. Then he poured himself another enormous glass of red wine and pulled at the tie round his neck, like it was choking him.
The table had gone very quiet then and Monica had felt her cheeks burn. Rita kindly rescued her by piping up that a fool and his money were easily parted, or something along those lines, and they’d all laughed half heartedly, but there was no denying that the atmosphere had been strained for the rest of the evening. Everyone had made their excuses and left early, before Monica even had a chance to serve the petits fours she’d arranged so carefully on her mother’s inherited china.
It was when she hugged Rita goodbye at the front door that she noticed the new diamond earrings glittering at her friend’s ears. A present from an old acquaintance, Rita explained, glancing surreptitiously at Paul when she thought Monica wasn’t looking. It had all become clear to Monica then, in that moment.
Reclining on the sofa now, over a year later, Monica reflected that she was very glad she had never gotten rid of it. Finally getting it recovered had made it feel almost new again and now it fitted perfectly in the living room of the bright flat she’d bought when she left her not so devoted husband behind. Nestled right here, in the scoop of the old bay window, she could happily watch the world go by and reflect how lucky she really was to know her own mind.
It simply was the perfect place to be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Short Story

This short story was first published in the RTE Guide last year. I hope you enjoy it!

A Small World by Niamh Greene

“Anna Reilly! Is that you?”
Anna was perusing the pizzas in aisle three when she heard the high pitched voice call her name. She didn’t have to look up to know who it was – she recognized the shrill shriek immediately: it was Ginny O’Brien. The dreaded Ginny O’Brien.
In the split second that followed, Anna weighed up her options. Would it be too late to pretend that she hadn’t heard and make a run for it maybe? But no, one glance to her left proved that her very worst fears were about to be realized – Ginny was bearing down on her, like a predator on its prey, her mouth an enormous O of feigned surprise, her large white teeth glinting under the fluorescent supermarket strip lighting. There was no escape. Not unless she threw herself head first into the freezer and tried to hide underneath the icy piles of thin crust specials. It didn’t seem like such a bad idea, faced with the alternative.
“Oh hi there,” Anna said, trying to fix a smile on her face, all the while silently cursing that she hadn’t taken just an extra thirty seconds to apply some tinted moisturizer before she’d ventured into the supermarket in the first place. Why, after so many months, did she have to bump into Ginny here and now? Her face was bare, her hair was lank and she was wearing a fleece that smelled strongly of wet dog. It was a disaster. Especially when Ginny looked as if she’d just stepped out of a beauty salon. Everything about her gleamed.
“Oh my God, it is you! What a small world!” Ginny gasped, looming ever closer. In one final step she clasped Anna dramatically to her bosoms and hugged her tightly, like a long lost friend. Ginny had always been one for grand gestures – she prided herself on her longstanding commitment to the local drama society.
“Yes. It’s me,” Anna squeaked as she lay pressed against Ginny’s sizeable chest, struggling to breathe. Had Ginny’s bosoms somehow increased in size since she’d last seen her? She couldn’t remember them being quite so….buoyant.
“So, how have you been keeping?” Ginny’s face creased into an expression of concern as Anna came up for air. It was the same look that everyone had pulled round her these past few months - ever since Edward had left her for the slip of a girl young enough to be his daughter.
“I’m good,” Anna replied evenly.
“Really?” Ginny raised two perfectly plucked brows, like she didn’t believe that this could be in any way true. Then she blatantly peered into Anna’s basket, clocking the pizza, bottle of wine, and tub of ice-cream. Everything about it screamed “shopping for lonely singleton.”
“Honestly, I’m fine,” Anna said, hugging the basket protectively to her. Trust Ginny to be so obvious – she’d never been much of an actress, which was why she was usually relegated to small, walk-on parts in all those drama society productions.
“You can confide in me,” Ginny went on, clutching Anna’s arm in what she clearly felt was a kind gesture of comfort. “There’s no need to keep up this pretence.”
Anna thought about this for a moment. Was she pretending to be fine? No, she didn’t think so. Of course, she hadn’t been fine at first, back when Edward announced that he was leaving her. It had all been so out of the blue - it had come as quite a shock.
But, once Anna recovered a little, she realized that it was the idea of Edward that she missed more than anything. Now that he was gone, she was quite enjoying herself. For one thing, he’d always hated pizza. How he would frown if he could see her now – the idea tickled her, just a little.
“Have you been getting out much?” Ginny went on. She was eager to get to the nitty gritty of the situation, that was obvious. If there were juicy details to be had, preferably tales of Anna wailing inconsolably in bed through the long, lonely nights, then Ginny would ferret them out.
“Not so much,” Anna admitted.
This was true. She’d been staying in quite a lot these past few months, but that was no torture because she’d found she quite enjoyed her own company. And when it did get lonely she just chatted on-line. She’d met some wonderful friends there, which was lucky because quite a few of the old gang had fallen by the wayside since Edward had left. It was almost as if they were afraid their own marriages would be tarnished with failure by what had happened so they kept a very safe distance.
“You should take up walking,” Ginny said, looking her over appraisingly. Anna knew she was trying to decide if she’d lost or gained weight. At least the smelly fleece wasn’t making it easy for her to see – even if the doggy fumes were pretty potent.
“Maybe,” Anna was non-committal. She already walked plenty with the dog - it was another one of her new pastimes. She didn’t want to divulge that to Ginny though - heaven forbid she suggested joining her.
“It takes discipline of course. I walk five miles a day,” Ginny said proudly.
“Do you?” That was impressive to be fair.
“Yes, I did a half marathon last year. Jack can’t keep up with me these days!”
There was that little tinkle – the same one that had driven Anna slowly crazy during so many dinner parties. Of course, she hadn’t been invited to any of those recently. Apparently, it was extremely inconvenient for seating arrangements when your husband ran off with another woman. It had rendered her almost invisible in some social circles. But that was OK – Anna had lots of other pursuits to keep her occupied these days.
“It keeps me really toned,” Ginny continued. “Once you get to our age you have to work so much harder to look good, don’t you?” She sighed then.
“Well, yes. If you don’t then your husband might swap you for a younger model!”
Anna wished she had the nerve to say this aloud, but she didn’t so she just nodded sagely instead. Ginny didn’t have a sense of humor about the aging process – it was pointless to joke.
“That’s why I got some work done,” Ginny whispered, glancing about to make sure none of the other shoppers could overhear.
Anna looked at Ginny’s bosoms – was she admitting it then? But no, Ginny was pointing to her teeth.
“I got veneers!” she whispered, triumphant now.
“Right,” Anna said. So that’s why they were so alien looking – it was as if they didn’t really belong in her mouth at all.
“Best investment I ever made!” Ginny continued. “I went to Bulgaria, far cheaper over there. Not that money’s an issue of course.”
“Of course not,” Anna murmured. She knew the truth was far different, if even half of what she’d read in the papers was true. Ginny’s husband Jack had been involved in some sort of pyramid scheme and charges were pending. But Anna didn’t want to mention that, it seemed rude to.
“Yes, I decided to kill two birds with one stone: get the teeth done, have a holiday at the same time – it was absolutely fabulous – you really should consider it.”
The idea didn’t appeal to Anna, but she didn’t say that either.
“Anyway, now that I’ve found you, we must keep in contact.” Ginny was all business, searching in her bag for her phone.
Anna cringed. Now there would be the swapping of phone numbers, the hollow promises to meet for coffee. It was all so false and exhausting.
Ginny paused, mid rummage. “I don’t suppose you’re on Facebook yet?” she asked. Then she rattled on as before, not bothering to wait for an answer. “It’s simply fantastic! I’ve caught up with people I haven’t seen in years.”
“Really?” Anna started to edge away, sensing the time might be ripe to escape.
“Oh yes, it’s a blast. You’ll never guess who I “poked” last week – Barry Cox! Do you remember him?”
“Yes, I think I do,” Anna replied.
“God, he was so gorgeous wasn’t he? He hasn’t replied to my message yet, but I live in hope! Didn’t you two used to go out, years ago?”
Anna felt her cheeks redden slightly. “I’d better fly,” she said quickly. “I don’t want my pizza to melt!”
“Oh, OK,” Ginny was taken aback. “Well, keep in touch!”
Anna nodded wordlessly and then sprinted away, trying to suppress tears of laughter. Just wait till Barry heard. He’d told her all about Ginny’s Facebook “friend request” last week when he’d called over. They’d had such a giggle as they’d curled up in front of the fire with their wine and pizza, as they would again tonight. Then they’d thanked their lucky stars that they’d found each other again on-line after all these years. It really was a small world.........
The End

Monday, July 25, 2011

I wrote this piece for a magazine just after I joined Twitter. A year has passed since then and, like all relationships, Twitter and I have had our ups and downs: there was the passionate honeymoon phase, followed by the ambivalent plateau stage and then the "even the way you chew drives me crazy" period but, as we celebrate our first anniversary together, I want to pause and look back at how it all started.....

I Tweet, Therefore I Am

In the time-honoured tradition of my conflicted relationship with all things technological, I came late to Twitter. Informed by those in the know that tweeting was the latest “big thing,” I decided it would be best to bury my head firmly in the sand and ignore it for as long as possible. What was the point of embracing this new media phenomenon sweeping the world when I could simply pretend it didn’t exist instead? After all, this was a policy that had worked perfectly well for me in the past. I was already successfully blanking Facebook, Bebo and all those other convoluted social networking tools - I wasn’t about to be seduced by this new kid on the block. Besides, if I wanted to talk to people without having to go to the trouble of actually speaking to them I still had my dear friends - email and texting - to rely on.
But, as time rolled on, I began to get curious. Just a little. And so one night, I logged on to see what all the fuss was about. I wasn’t going to get sucked in of course, I was just going to look, prove to myself that I was right to avoid this Twitter like the rabid plague it surely was. But before I could say jeepers tweepers, I found I’d opened an account (, and uploaded a dodgy photo to accompany it. It had all been so incredibly easy, even for a tech dinosaur like me – either this tweeting thing was a piece of cake or I was a computer genius and I just hadn’t realised it before.
“What’s happening?” my new page asked me flirtatiously that fateful night. My fingers hovered over the keyboard as I dithered about how I should reply, a wave of sudden uncertainty washing over me. What should I say? I could hardly admit “Em, not very much to be honest.”
Foolish pride prevents me from revealing here just how long it took to compose that first tweet. Let’s just say my husband asked me, more than once, if I was feeling all right as he ferried cups of tea up and down the stairs to me.
The trouble was, the truth was dawning: My tweets had to be witty and relevant. They also had to be concise - I had just 140 characters to play with. Not only that, I had to reach out into the abyss to other tweeps – “follow” people, get them to “follow” me. This made me feel quite ill with fright. It was the nail-biting cyberspace equivalent of going to a party where I knew no-one and standing at the edge of the room, nervously plucking up the courage to join in the conversation, hoping someone, anyone, would talk to me. (On the upside, I didn’t have to roll out the Spanx to squeeze into my little black dress - pyjama wearing and tweeting go hand in hand.)
Then there was the lingo to contend with: what were tags, RTs, abbreviations like LMAO? When someone #FF me, I didn’t know whether to thank them or run and hide. It was all so strange and unknown. But the conversations - as people shared information, interesting websites, personal angst - were fascinating.
Within days, and against all the odds, I was hooked. Before I knew it, I was refreshing my page constantly to check for new messages. I was also sneaking away from the dinner table to consort with my PC like some sort of Twitter junkie. Where was the harm? It was all such fun right?
But Twitter has its downsides too, as I would soon sadly learn. Just like at parties, there were people on-line who wanted to corner me near the cold meat buffet and tell me their every waking thought – like they were thinking about cutting their toenails soon – yes, really.
There were also lots of fakers. Take a new follower of mine – let’s call her Julie. Julie seemed perfectly nice to begin with. Until, that is, she kept asking me to look at naked photos of her. You see, Julie didn’t want to befriend me at all – she wasn’t even a real person - she was spam.
But, despite the negatives, I keep going back for more. Mostly because, although I’m still a newbie, I have already found real connections on-line – Twitter is a wonderland for writers like me. I’ve even met some famous faces. My claim to Twitter fame - and a story I hope to dine out on for many years to come - is that I am one very well known person’s 666th follower. When I pointed this out to him, as I felt duly obliged to, he kindly tweeted back, wanting to know if this meant that if he read one of my novels backwards it would be Satanic text. I’m taking it as a compliment - after all, chick lit has been called lots worse. Now, I really must go, I haven’t checked my account in, oh, at least twenty minutes. Who knows what I’ve missed….

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Super Mammy

I wrote this for a charity anthology a few years ago. Not much has changed since!

The Super Mammy
Before I had children, I had a very clear picture in my mind of the perfect parent I was going to be. For starters, I definitely wasn’t going to be uptight. There’s nothing worse than a Mammy who won’t get on the floor to play or have a go on the bouncy castle, just because she thinks she might look idiotic. Well, there are lots of worse things, of course there are, but I knew I wanted to retain a sense of fun, even if, as a parent, I would be obliged to pretend to be a responsible adult most of the time. Anyway, I was used to looking idiotic, so that wasn’t going to be a problem for me. So, I’d be jovial, but I’d also be careful about setting rules and boundaries. There would be no somersaults or risky manoeuvres on the bouncy castle for example - that would be totally off limits. There’d also be no jumping off kitchen countertops, no running with scissors and no poking eyes out with forks.
As well as being a barrel of laughs, I’d be really nurturing. Not in an overbearing or scary stage-school mother way of course. Yes, I’d encourage my children to shoot for the stars and use their talents (which would be too many to count, obviously), but I’d also teach them to be kind and not step on others’ dreams on the way. I definitely wouldn’t suggest that they injure another child accidentally on purpose to land the lead role in the school Nativity Play, for instance. Ahem.
I’d be a counsellor and friend and the first person they would turn to in trouble - not that they would ever get into any trouble in the first place, because, in my infinite wisdom, I would steer them away from making any bad choices. And, while I was doing all that, I’d also cultivate an herb garden, grow my own fruits and vegetables and cook delicious, nutritious meals from scratch every day. My Mensa children would be poster kids for healthy living and I, in turn, would be feted by everyone from Jamie Oliver to Supernanny. I’d be a cross between Ma Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie and Nigella Lawson. In short, I’d be a Super Mammy.
It has been more than eight years since my first child was born and there are some days when, very briefly, I start to think I am Super Mammy. OK, so I may not be an award-winning chef (I’ve got the licking-your-fingers-suggestively bit down pat, it’s the baking I struggle with) and I have yet to plant any herbs or vegetables but there are times I can believe I’m doing a good job. The goal posts have shifted a bit of course, because, these days, meeting my parenting ideals doesn’t mean growing dinner from scratch. It means negotiating a whole host of little hurdles with as much good humour and as few calamities as possible along the way. A good morning, for example, means not forgetting the children’s school bags. A very good morning means remembering their hats, music and football boots too. If I can accomplish that and everyone is still smiling then I can start to feel smug and think, for a split second, that I have the measure of this parenting lark. It’s then of course, right when I’m patting myself on the back for a job well done, that a shining example of award-winning motherhood will pop up from nowhere, burst my perfect-parent bubble and remind me, swiftly and without mercy, that just because I can manage a measly task or two without disaster striking, a Super Mammy I am not.
A true Super Mammy is easy to spot. For a start, she’s on time - or early - for everything. She doesn’t struggle up to the school gates, miles late and red in the face, vexed with the exertion of a morning spent unsuccessfully trying to bribe a child to eat something, anything, before school. She’s also never less than impeccably dressed – she wouldn’t dream of wearing pyjama bottoms under her coat to do the school run and she never pulls on a hat to hide the fact that her hair hasn’t been washed in a week. She’s always perfectly groomed – and so are her children. Not for them a school jumper that has never seen an iron or a pair of shoes that are only ever cleaned with a baby wipe in the car just before reaching the school gates. Not for them hair that hasn’t been brushed properly or socks that don’t match. Super Mammy prides herself on ironing even her children’s underwear and polishing their shoes every single night before bed. All her progeny brush their own hair before they leave the house every morning – a habit she instilled in them from toddlerhood. And she couldn’t imagine how any mother would let a child loose in mismatched socks. All it takes is preparation. Preparation is key and she, for one, can’t sleep easy until everything necessary for the school day is organised and neatly laid out the night before – that prevents delay in the mornings, meaning her children have sufficient time to eat the organic porridge she lovingly prepares for them at their leisure. It is this commitment to preparation that sets a Super Mammy apart from the likes of me (purely a pretender).
Super Mammy is supremely organised. She does not forget which child has a play date and which had a keyboard lesson. She never mislays a child’s homework and then bribes that child to tell the teacher the dog ate it. She never arrives at school to find the yard deserted because she didn’t read the note announcing a staff training day. She does not have “trouble” with notes. She does not have trouble with anything.
She walks everywhere with purpose, her diligently organised handbag tucked neatly under her arm. This handbag is her portable office, and in it are the tools that allow her perfect existence to operate without a hitch. An endless supply of antiseptic wipes, nutritious snacks and bottled water is only the start of what the handbag can hold. Super Mammy loves nothing more than a pseudo emergency situation so she can really demonstrate her worth and the extent of her organisational capabilities.
Your child has a nosebleed? Good news! Super Mammy will come to the rescue in a jiffy with an icepack she just happened to have to hand! Your child falls and rips the knee of his trousers? Don’t panic! Super Mammy has a sewing kit to hand and will carry out an instant repair. (Her new motto for these credit crunch times is mend and make-do – she’s even learning embroidery in her very limited spare time.) Your child forgets his lunchbox? Never fear, Super Mammy always makes a spare, just in case.
Super Mammy does not try to keep track of her life by writing notes to herself on scraps of paper and the backs of supermarket till receipts and then promptly losing them. Super Mammy’s pride and joy is her To-Do list. She keeps one copy in the handbag (in its own special pouch) and a carbon copy on the cork notice board at home, where an intricate colour coded system alerts her to any possible hiccup in her finely tuned and expertly timed day. Super Mammy updates this list hourly without fail so she can keep one step ahead of her hectic schedule. She never misses a parent-teacher meeting, forgets to make a child’s dance-recital costume or is caught unawares by a school bake sale. She meticulously files past medical appointments in chronological order so she knows exactly when her child received each jab. She does not shove medical receipts into a kitchen drawer and hope they will somehow sort themselves out.
Super Mammy is confident she is prepared for every eventuality. A last minute birthday invitation? No problem! Super Mammy always bulk-buys greeting cards and an assortment of kids’ gifts – she keeps a stash in her boot specially. She does not skid to a halt in front of the supermarket five minutes ahead of a child’s party and then race inside to choose a random present. She carries a roll of Sellotape everywhere – she has never resorted to using Winnie the Pooh plasters to wrap gifts. She also keeps spare clothes, neatly ironed and folded in a recycled bag, in the car just in case her child ever throws up on her pristine upholstery after consuming too may sugary goodies while he has been away from her watchful eye. She could not contemplate having to mop up a child’s vomit with pages torn from a woman’s magazine, and she has never been forced to ask a child to wipe his dripping nose on his sleeve because she always has a pack of pre-softened Aloe Vera tissues in her purse. She brings her child’s borrowed books back on time. She has never received a notice from the library to inform her that if she doesn’t return The Gruffalo within a week she will have a nice day out in court.
Super Mammy has an herb garden. And a vegetable patch. She never serves her family fish fingers that may be past their sell by date or tries to pass off spaghetti hoops as vegetables. Instead, she clips wholesome recipes from magazines and involves her child in meal preparation (Little Johnny just loves to roll homemade pasta!). She does not watch Rachel bake on TV with a glass of wine in one hand and a packet of crisps in the other. She does not vow that she will cook like Rachel some day. She could give Rachel a run for her money right now if the mood took her. She has been buying exclusively organic produce for years. Actually, she’s recently acquired a few hens of her own (little Johnny likes nothing better than to collect the fresh eggs every morning). She does not buy supermarket spaghetti sauce and pretend it’s her own.
Super Mammy’s child is extra special. Little Johnny slept through the night from birth, smiled at four days, rolled over at three weeks, sat at two months, walked at six months and wrote his first sentence at one year. Super Mammy now enrols him in every available after-school activity to help him reach his potential and she encourages others to do the same because everyone knows children are sponges and it’s up to parents to expand their inquisitive minds. Super Mammy floats from one hellish activity to another serenely. She doesn’t develop a hunted look or a serious coffee addiction because every afternoon is now filled with a soul-destroying round of never-ending extra-curricular past-times that sucks her soul dry. She relishes the challenge of being in two places at once – especially when flute clashes with violin on a Tuesday.
So, there you have it. All the evidence adds up to one irrefutable, conclusive fact: I am not a Super Mammy and I never will be. I am not organised, I am not focused, and I probably will never have an herb garden or a vegetable patch. But I am also not losing precious sleep over it because, luckily for me, I don’t have to be a Super Mammy to have Super Kids. And they are what make me Super Happy.