A seasonal story by Aoife B. Burke, first published in The Tuam Herald on 19th December, 2018
“Now ladies, put your purses away, this is my treat”.
If there is a more combative phrase in the realm of Irish social etiquette, it has yet to be encountered. Three women are seated snugly around a table-for-two with a young waitress in a Santa hat hovering over them, chip and pin machine in hand. Her foot has inadvertently slipped in between the handles of one of the women’s many carrier bags that are strewn haphazardly (some might say carelessly) underneath the legs of their table, those of their neighbours’ and of anyone who deigns to squeeze past their intimate little arrangement.
“No, no, no, no, no, NO! We agreed that we’d all pay our own way, we agree this EVERY time, and EVERY time someone pipes up to say they’ll get it”.
This meeting is a standing arrangement for four friends, on Christmas Eve eve. Beginning in the last year of their secondary school days, the friends have kept up their appointment for twenty years now. Only Aine still lives in the town they grew up in, and now teaches in the second level school they all attended, while the others have settled in Dublin and further afield, but they all know that if they are available on Christmas Eve eve, a day they have christened Friend’s Night (when it was less coffee and cakes and more drinks and then more drinks), their families will understand that this is an appointment they’re obliged to keep.
“Actually I think it’s Paula’s turn but she’s not here, which brings it back to me. And I simply insist.”
Over the years, college, work, marriage, babies, emigration, etc. etc. etc. have interrupted their engagement, but even if only two are available they’ll keep their date. After a few years of consistency, where grandads and grannies, aunts, uncles and in-laws are delighted to look after the kids for a few hours and partners are encouraged to complete any last minute arrangements they may still have to complete, this is the first year in four that one is missing from their meet-up.
“It’s NO ONE’S turn, we’re paying separately.”
Paula, the doctor of the group, has been rostered for a shift in the hospital she works in in Dublin, but will be joining them on St. Stephen’s Day with a wider group of their friends, in Aine’s mother’s house. Aine has just ‘moved home’ as they say in polite circles, with her fiancé in tow, in order to save for their wedding and then a house deposit. Her mother has gamely agreed to decamp to her own sister’s house from Stephen’s Day right up until New Year’s Day, so Aine and Joe can re-live their teenage years with a party, followed by the few quiet days of recovery required by those in their thirties. Maura has come from the capital with her two well behaved children and their well-behaved father and Laura has been in town with her parents and many siblings for a week already, having come from her Edinburgh with her 18-month-old and Scottish partner.
“It’s barely E15, sure you’d be paying twice that in Dublin! Triple! Really, it’s nothing”.
Maura just can’t help herself. She has a good, hard-earned job, nice husband and two fairly average academically but well-liked and popular children. She loves to treat her friends! Why is Aine so opposed to her paying for a few cups of coffee and a couple of slices of cake? It must be her pride. That woman has been as stubborn as a dog with a bone since the day they met, when a friendship was forged after teaming up precociously to have their first year home room moved from a mouldy pre-fab to one of the newly decorated rooms that were supposed to have been reserved for the transition years. Maura has the money, Aine is scrimping and saving, what’s the problem?
“Yes exactly, so let’s just pay our own way and leave it at that.”
Humph, ‘it’s nothing’ she says!’ Aine is beginning to lose her cool. There’s nothing wrong with Maura offering to pay PER SE, but she knows she’ll be indebted in some way in the future. She’ll have to give her slightly stupid first-born maths grinds or something. Probably over Face Time! Maura has never had to move back in to the family home, has been independent since she graduated (from her LLB, after her arts degree; little tiger cub had plenty of help until then). It was pure luck she met and married Mark, an accountant who owned a flat by the time he was 25 then had the means to trade it in for a family semi-d by the time the first sprog arrived. It’s not Aine’s fault that she and Joe had preferred to seize the day in their 20s and early 30s, to spend their earnings on fun instead of investing in boring things like pensions and savings.
“Look, maybe you could pay for the tip? Gosh I only had a green tea anyway, I’d have gotten something better if I knew you were going to offer to pay!
Laura always finds herself stuck in the crossfire between Maura and Aine, and she’s in even more danger of being hit by a stray arrow now that Paula isn’t there to exchange eye-rolls with. If Paula were here she’d tactfully smooth over the argument, but Laura doesn’t want to try to do it herself lest one of the others give out to her. They’re too alike those two, and once their frankly unnecessary little tiff has been straightened out they’re likely to gang up on her, taking advantage of Paula’s absence to demand to know why she hasn’t returned to work since having the baby yet.
“Look, why don’t I give you a minute, to, er, get yourselves sorted?”
The manager has caught the waitress’s eye and is now gesticulating wildly in an effort to get her to move on from this table she’s been standing at for five minutes, to the other customers who are baying for hot chocolate and their speciality mince pies. The waitress moves to leave but her foot has indeed caught in one of the carrier bags (it’s Maura’s) so as she turns she stumbles, surprisingly and safely into the arms of a passing customer, who just turns out to be that lovely guy from the boy’s school that she was crushing on from afar last year, before he upped and left for college. Well look, he’s back! And he has saved her from near death!
“Oh for God’s sake Maura, the poor girl’s neck could have been broken! You ALWAYS just leave your stuff willy-nilly, wherever you feel like, even if it’s liable to cause someone an injury. And you a solicitor!”
Aine is always happy to point out when Maura, the perennial overachiever and let’s face it, Aine’s opponent in friendly rivalry, fails to do something perfectly. Maura does, as it happens, have a tendency to lack awareness of her surroundings, sending tea cups flying and leaving rails of clothes spinning in her wake without her ever realising it, unwilling as people tend to be to call her out on her shortcomings, intimidated as they are by her self-assured demeanour. Aine has no such qualms.
“Tip? Why would we leave a tip, it was only two flat whites and a few slices of cake. And your green tea, Laura. Round up at restaurants, that’s what I do and I draw the line everywhere else. And sure lookit, wasn’t it me who sent her into the arms of that young chap, literally! That’s the kind of tip I’d appreciate!”
There’s no ruffling Maura, who ignores Aine’s priggish chastisement. Silly girl should have watched where she was going. The waitress’s little trip brings her back to the time when the four of them went on a post Leaving Cert trip to France. Only Aine had retained a smattering of French, the rest had expelled all information they deemed irrelevant directly after each exam ended. Pity they hadn’t retained the words for ‘horse’ and ‘meat’ for a few weeks longer. That would have saved her from her abrupt ascent from the dinner table, a subsequent trip over her own casually discarded cardigan followed by a stumble into the desert tray, all to Laura and Paula’s looks of bewilderment and Aine’s maniacal laugher.
“Do you remember that time in Biarritz…”
Cue Aine’s lacklustre memory catching up.
“Oh, when Maura ate those frog’s legs, or whatever, and fell into that old couple’s table!”
Laura too has fond, if hazy, memories of Maura’s little tumble.
“Remember Paula was so proud of that tourniquet she fashioned from the spare top she had in her tote? And then Maura lost it when she threw it off on the dance floor when she miraculously recovered after a few rounds of margaritas?”
“And we were all so baffled by the margaritas; we thought they put salt on the rims of the glasses by accident, instead of sugar.”
“Didn’t stop us drinking them!”
They all titter in companionable reminiscence; there’s nothing like a fond shared memory to defuse any heated situation. Maura may appear rather too proper at times but she does have a sense of humour, and even knows when to laugh at herself. Aine has always felt a teeny bit bad for instigating Maura’s little accident, so is relieved when her friend nudges her gently on the arm and then puts her wallet back in her bag. Laura visibly relaxes, and beams as her two old friends continue to laugh.
“Okay, we’ll each pay for what we had. No big deal. But I’m calling the waitress over so neither of you get any ideas about pretending to go to the loo then paying the whole bill up at the counter”
Aine doesn’t trust Maura not to betray their ladies’ agreement, but in fact it’s exactly what Laura was going to do, to surprise them both with some unexpected moxie. Oh well.
“Here she is now. Without the bill, or the machine”.
Maura could do well not to show her dissatisfaction considering she almost killed the girl.
“Is it alright if we all pay separately?”
Aine is now conscious that her share of E4.75. won’t be accepted by card, considering it’s under the E5 limit sometimes applied to debit transactions.
“Actually it’s all been taken care of. You’re all paid up already.”
Once the waitress recovered from her tumble, and after exchanging pleasantries and phone numbers with her very cute hero, she had returned to the pay point to make sure the chip and pin machine hadn’t been damaged in the fall. There she was informed by her colleague manning the till that the ‘difficult’ ladies’ table had already been accounted for and that they were, in fact, E20 in credit, and so she was instructed to give it to them in cash so they would finally be on their way.
Duly flustered – who is their benevolent benefactor? Could it be an old flame?! – each of the friends’ phones ting within seconds of each other. It’s their group WhatsApp:
“Ho Ho Ho! Enjoy Friend’s Night on me guys, sorry I couldn’t be there this year. See you all St. Stephen’s Day! P.S. I just had a new born baby pee all over BOTH my shoes; hope your day is going as well as mine is 😉 “
Paula is a good old sort, who’d never let an infant’s urine bring her down. She’s disappointed to miss this year’s get-together and is happy to contribute to the meet-up by shouting her best friends the treat.
E20 in hand, the women text back a photo of themselves, taken by the waitress who would love nothing more than to clear their table so she can tidy up and leave for her date with her handsome saviour.
“You know, E20 would buy us a round and a couple packets of crisps, we may even be thrown in a sing-song or two if we go to the right place…”
Aine is commitment free (they’re all going to her brother’s house for dinner tomorrow) and childless and now in the mood for continuing the love-in.
“I just checked in and the baby is out for the count, no one would mind if I stayed out for another hour. Or two…”
Laura hasn’t told her friends that she has the best baby in the world, who sleeps through the night even if he naps in the daytime and never makes her feel guilty if she leaves him for a little while, but showers her in adorable little kisses and hugs when she returns. They wouldn’t believe her.
“Sure, it’s only just gone 6pm on Friend’s Night, where else would we be going?”
Maura has loads to do when she gets back to her family home, from supervising the boiling of the ham to making sure the presents are wrapped properly to selecting the ambient festive music for tomorrow’s feast. But at the same time, one G&T wouldn’t hurt. They even have the proper big bowl glasses, seasoning and Fever Tree tonic she likes to get in Dublin, and at about half the price! Shopping and consuming local is well worth it.
“Right, let’s get moving so. I say we go across the road, they do decent wine by the bottle there.”
Aine may have a short fuse but it simmers out as quickly as it sparks. Like the other day when her mother asked her when to expect the turkey delivery and the blood drained from her face when she realised she’d forgotten to order it. Lucky her brother’s perfect wife had ordered one anyway, ‘just in case’. Her temper had flared at the impertinence but then died down pretty soon afterwards. You can’t have Christmas without turkey, even though her sister-in-law has a tendency to burn it to a crisp. Her two back-up chickens will no doubt save the day.
“Sounds like a plan. I think I deserve a nice drink and a sit-down after all the work I’ve put in at home – I’m the only one who bothers to decorate, in a household of six! I put them up over a few evenings, started five minutes after I arrived in from Knock airport, over last year’s yellowing Sellotape. Handy actually, saved me having to get the measuring tape out”
Laura may be the more placid one of the group, but when she’s with her best friends she can let herself bitch a little bit about her layabout family. She won’t tell them that she likes to do the decorating though, and would have to have re-done a lot of it if her siblings had attempted any of it. It’s her contribution to the family Christmas.
“Right, that’s settled then. To the pub!”
Calm has been restored; the dynamic is now at peace. Once huddled around their drinks and crisps in the jolly pub environment they will put vague plans in place as to when they three will meet again; in the new year perhaps, they could all rendezvous in Belfast before Brexit! But even if that falls through (which it will), they all know that they have this time next year.
“Slainte! And Merry Christmas!”