Outside, pop music played, a child squealed with delight and a bearded man holding a ‘Walk with Jesus’ placard danced a jig. The leather seat felt warm against Rabbit’s skin. The car rolled forward, forming part of a slow and steady stream of traffic snaking through the city. It’s a nice day, Rabbit thought, then slipped into a doze.
Molly, Rabbit’s mother, looked from the road to her daughter, taking one hand off the steering-wheel to adjust the blanket covering the thin, frail body. Then she stroked the closely shaved head.
‘It’s going to be OK, Rabbit,’ she whispered. ‘Ma’s going to fix it.’ It was a bright April day and forty-year-old Mia ‘Rabbit’ Hayes, beloved daughter of Molly and Jack, sister of Grace and Davey, mother of twelve-year-old Juliet, best friend to Marjorie Shaw and the one true love of Johnny Faye’s life, was on her way to a hospice to die.
When she’d reached their destination, Molly came to a slow stop. She turned off the engine, pulled up the handbrake, then sat for a moment or two, focusing on the door that led to the unwanted and unknown. Rabbit was still sleeping and Molly didn’t want to wake her because as soon as she did their terrible short future would become the present. She thought about driving on but there was nowhere to go. She was stuck. ‘Fuck,’ she whispered, and gripped the steering-wheel. ‘Fucking fuck sticks, screwing, shitting, frigging, fucker fuckness. Oh, fuck.’ It was clear that Molly’s heart was already smashed to pieces but the fragments were scattering with every ‘fuck’ that tripped off her tongue.
‘You want to drive on?’ Rabbit asked, but when her mother looked her way, her eyes were still closed.
‘Nah, just wanted to curse for a while,’ Molly said.
‘I particularly liked “fuck sticks” and “fucker fuckness”.’
‘They just came to me,’ Molly answered.
‘Keepers,’ Rabbit said.
‘You think so?’ Molly pretended to ponder while placing her hand back on her daughter’s head and stroking it again.
Rabbit opened her eyes slowly. ‘You’re obsessed with my head.’
‘Soft,’ Molly mumbled.
‘Go on, then, give it another rub for luck.’ Rabbit turned to the double doors. So this is it, she thought.
Molly rubbed her daughter’s head once more, then Rabbit removed her hand and held it. They stared at their interlocking fingers. Rabbit’s hands looked older than her mother’s. Her skin was flaky and paper thin, riddled with raised and broken veins, and her once beautiful long fingers were so thin they seemed almost gnarled. Her mother’s were plump, soft and, with perfectly painted short nails, pampered.
‘No time like the present,’ Rabbit said.
‘I’ll get a wheelchair.’
‘You will not.’
‘Ma, I’m walking in.’
‘Rabbit Hayes, you have a broken bleedin’ leg. You are not walking in.’
‘I have a stick and I have you and I am walking in.’
Molly sighed heavily. ‘Right, bloody right. If you fall down, I swear to God I’ll—’
‘Kill me?’ Rabbit grinned.
‘Fuck-all funny,’ Molly said, and Rabbit laughed a little. Her mother’s curses upset many, but not her. She found them entertaining, familiar and comforting. Ma was kind, generous, fun, playful, wise, strong and formidable. She’d take a bullet to protect an innocent, and nobody, not the tallest, strongest or bravest, messed with Molly Hayes. She didn’t suffer fools gladly and she didn’t give a toss about pleasing people. You either liked Molly Hayes or you fucked off. Molly got out of the car, and when she’d pulled the walking-stick out of the back seat, she opened the passenger door and helped her daughter to her feet. Rabbit faced down the double doors before, between her stick and her mother, she walked slowly and steadily into the reception area. If I walk in, I could walk out. Just maybe . . . she thought.
Inside they took in the lush carpets, dark wood, pretty Tiffany lamps, soft furnishings and the shelf filled with books and magazines.
‘Nice,’ Molly said.
‘More like a hotel than a hospital,’ Rabbit added.
‘Yeah.’ Molly nodded. Stay calm, Molly.
‘Doesn’t even smell like a hospital.’
‘Thank Christ for that,’ Molly said.
‘Yeah,’ Rabbit agreed. ‘I’m not going to miss that.’
They walked slowly towards a short-haired blonde woman, with a toothy Tom Cruise smile. ‘You must be Mia Hayes,’ she said.
‘People call me Rabbit.’
The smile grew and the blonde woman nodded. ‘I like it,’ she said. ‘I’m Fiona. I’m going to show you to your room and then I’ll call one of the nurses to settle you in.’
‘A pleasure, Rabbit.’
Molly remained silent. She was doing her best to keep it together. It’s OK, Molls. Don’t cry, no more tears, just pretend the way they’re pretending that all is well. Come on, ya mad auld one, just suck it up for Rabbit. It’s going to be OK. We’ll find a way. Do it for your girl.
The room was bright and comfortable, furnished with a pristine bed, a soft sofa and a reclining chair. The large window looked out onto a lush garden. Fiona helped settle Rabbit on the bed and, in a bid to escape the moment, Molly pretended to investigate the en-suite. She closed the door behind her and took a few deep breaths. She cursed herself for insisting on transferring Rabbit from the hospital to the hospice. Jack hadn’t spoken since he’d received the news of Rabbit’s impending demise. He needed to steel himself. He didn’t have the stomach for it yet, and Rabbit didn’t need to be minding anyone but herself. Grace had wanted to help but Molly was adamant. ‘No fuss, she just needs to convalesce,’ she’d said, lying out loud to herself and to anyone who would listen. Stupid old woman, she thought. They should be here.
‘Are you all right, Ma?’ Rabbit said, from behind the door.
‘I’m grand, love. Jaysus, the bath is as big as Nana Mulvey’s old galley kitchen. Do you remember that?’ she asked, hearing her voice shake and hoping that Rabbit was too tired to notice.
‘She’s gone a long time, Ma,’ Rabbit said.
‘Yeah,’ Molly agreed, ‘and she spent more time in ours than we did in hers.’
‘It’s a good bath, though?’ Rabbit asked. Molly knew that her daughter was aware of her struggle, which gave her the kick she needed to pull herself together.
‘It sure is,’ she said, emerging. ‘You could drown in it.’
‘I’ll keep that in mind if things get too bad.’ Rabbit laughed.
Rabbit had long ago accepted that Ma was the kind of person who, given the opportunity, would say the wrong thing at the wrong time, every time. There were countless examples of this, but one of Rabbit’s favourites had happened many years ago: an old neighbour with a prosthetic hand had asked Molly how she was coping with her mother’s death. Molly had replied, ‘I’m not going to lie to ya, Jean, it’s like losing me right arm.’
Once Rabbit was settled, Fiona left them to it. Rabbit had travelled in her nightwear and dressing-gown even though she’d originally planned to wear day clothes. Molly had brought an expensive pair of wide-legged jersey trousers and a cotton V-necked jumper from Rabbit’s house to the hospital, but by the time she’d seen the consultant, received her meds from the pharmacy and been formally discharged, Rabbit had been too tired to change. ‘I’m just bed-hopping anyway, Ma,’ she’d said.
‘It makes more sense to stay as you are,’ Molly agreed, but it didn’t make sense to her. None of it did. She wanted to scream and shout and rage at the world. She wanted to do some damage, overturn a car, set a church on fire and unleash hell. If I was just five per cent crazier, she thought. Molly Hayes was not in her right mind.
The previous day, an oncologist had sat Molly and her husband Jack down in a small yellow room that smelt of antibacterial soap. When they were settled in their seats, he had destroyed them with one sentence. ‘We’re looking at short weeks rather than long months.’ The room fell into complete and total silence. Molly stared at the man’s face and waited for the punch-line that never came. Jack remained motionless. It was as though life had just left him and he was slowly turning to stone. She didn’t argue. The only two words she uttered were ‘Thank you’, when the oncologist booked Rabbit’s place in the hospice. She felt the weight of Jack’s stare. It was as though she was disappearing right in front of his eyes and he was wondering how he would navigate the new reality without his wife. Give me time to think, old man. They had no questions – at least, none that the man sitting opposite could answer.
The silence had allowed Molly to do some thinking of her own. It was time to retreat: she needed to arm herself with more information, and she had to come up with a plan, start a new conversation. She was not about to give up, no way. Rabbit Hayes might be dying but she was not going to die because Molly was going to find a way to save her. She wouldn’t talk about it, just do it. In the meantime, she’d play the game. The clock was against them: Rabbit was slipping away. No time for talking.
In the early days after Rabbit’s diagnosis, she had often taken herself down to the church to abuse God. Prepared for no answers, she’d asked a lot of questions, shaking her fist at the altar and once even giving the finger to a statue of the Baby Jesus.
Staying quiet was unusual for Molly, who liked to talk and battle things out even when she was full sure she wouldn’t receive a conclusion or an answer. In the early days after Rabbit’s diagnosis, she had often taken herself down to the church to abuse God. Prepared for no answers, she’d asked a lot of questions, shaking her fist at the altar and once even giving the finger to a statue of the Baby Jesus.
‘Where’s your deals now, God?’ she had screamed, in her empty local church, one day a year before, when Rabbit’s cancer had returned in her right breast and had metastasized into her liver. ‘You want the second breast? Take it, you greedy bastard, but don’t you dare take my girl. Do you hear me, ya—’
‘Ah, there you are, Molly.’ Father Frank had appeared out of thin air and pushed himself into the seat beside her. He rubbed his bad knee and put his hand to his grey hair, then knelt and leaned on the pew. She remained seated. He looked forward, saying nothing.
‘Not now,’ she’d said.
‘And . . .’
‘You’re angry, and you wanted to give the Baby Jesus the finger.’ He shook his head.
‘How did you know that?’ Molly asked, surprised and a little unnerved.
‘Sister Veronica was polishing the tabernacle.’
‘I didn’t see her.’
‘She’s like a ninja, that one.’ Now he rubbed his head. She wondered if he was getting a migraine – he suffered a lot with it. ‘Molly,’ he said, in a more serious tone, ‘I understand.’
‘No, you don’t, Frank.’
‘My mother died of cancer.’
‘Your mother was ninety-two.’
‘Love is love, Molly.’
‘No, it isn’t, and if you lived a life with love in it as opposed to simply preaching it, you’d understand that. You’ve never been a husband or father so, God love you, Frank, of all the people to try to comfort me, you really haven’t a clue.’
‘If that’s the way you feel, Molly.’
‘It is, and I’m sorry for it.’ She got up, leaving Father Frank dumbstruck. She hadn’t darkened the church door since. But Molly still prayed; she still believed.
Still, this emergency needed something more rational than prayer. She’d been researching Rabbit’s condition for four years. She’d looked at all the studies, the new drugs, the various trials, and knew more about genetic mapping than a second-year laboratory student. There’s something we haven’t thought about, something we’re missing. It’s on the tip of me tongue. I just need to concentrate, work out the problem. It’s going to be OK.
‘What are you thinking about?’ Rabbit asked.
‘What I’ll make for your daddy’s tea.’ Molly settled on the recliner.
‘Just bring home a curry,’ Rabbit suggested.
‘He’s getting a belly,’ Molly said.
‘Jaysus, Ma, he’s seventy-seven! Give him a break!’
‘I suppose I could give him a chicken curry with egg fried rice, and make him do four laps of the green afterwards.’
‘Or you could just let him be.’
‘Right, we’ll settle on two laps.’
As she spoke, a dark-haired nurse, with a suspect tan and a nice neat bun, entered the room carrying a chart. ‘Hiya, Rabbit, I’m Michelle. I just wanted to see if you were settling in and if we could go through your meds, once and once only. Then I promise I’ll leave you to it.’
‘Great. So far so good?’ she asked.
‘Well, I’m still alive so that’s a bonus.’
‘People usually make it past the door,’ Michelle said, and grinned.
‘I like her,’ Rabbit said to her ma.
‘She’s got a bit of shite to her, all right,’ Molly said.
‘And I take it having a bit of shite is a good thing?’ Michelle asked.
‘In our house it is,’ Rabbit said.
‘As the fuddy-duddy aristocrat said to his Jewish tailor, “Good-oh.”‘ Michelle sat on the sofa. Rabbit and her mother caught each other’s eye and smiled. Clearly a nutter.
‘Well, I’ll be here if you need me. Can we talk meds?’
‘I’m on a Fentanyl patch, OxyNorm liquid, Lyrica and Valium.’
‘Oh, yes! How could I forget?’
Michelle nodded towards Rabbit’s leg. ‘How’s the wound post-surgery?’
‘Fine. No sign of infection.’
‘Good. So, the fracture was your first sign it had spread to the bones?’
‘They were monitoring high calcium levels the week before.’
‘How’s your pain level now?’
‘Keep me posted.’
Michelle looked at her watch. ‘Hungry?’
‘Well, we’ve got bacon and spuds on the menu in an hour.’
‘Bite your tongue. We’ve got the best chefs this side of the Liffey here,’ Michelle said, with mock disgust, then smiled. ‘You need anything – a back rub, a foot massage, a manicure, physio for that leg of yours – ring your bell.’
‘You’re welcome.’ She opened a window and left Molly to attend to her daughter’s bedclothes.
When Molly had finished, she went back to the recliner, sat down and watched as Rabbit’s eyes flitted between open and closed. ‘Davey’s on his way home, love. He’ll drop in later if you’re well enough,’ she said.
‘That’s nice.’ Rabbit was asleep almost before the words were out of her mouth.
The past and Johnny often waited for Rabbit in sleep. That afternoon, in her dream, he was sixteen, tall, beautiful, his soft curly brown hair resting on his shoulders. She was her younger self, and twelve-year-old Rabbit was a very different-looking girl from the paper-thin ghost that lay in the hospice bed. She was tall for her age but so thin her mother worried that the large space between her legs would affect her gait. ‘Walk in front of me, Rabbit,’ she’d say, and then to her friend Pauline, ‘Do you see what I’m sayin’, Pauline? A toddler could jog through that gap.’
‘Ah, not to worry, Molly. She’ll fill in,’ Pauline said, and she was right. Rabbit did fill in, but not for another three years, despite everything Molly cooked, baked and roasted in duck fat to add weight to her youngest child. Back then, Molly’s mantra was a simple one.
‘Rabbit, eat more. Grace, eat less. Davey, stop picking at your nose.’
Grace would complain and talk about unfairness, but Molly wasn’t interested. ‘You’re big-boned like your ma. Big bones equal small servings, so if you want to be your best self, live with it.’
Grace would continue to complain, but Rabbit didn’t feel sorry for her because, back then, when Rabbit was still so gawky, Grace was a real beauty. She had hips, breasts and luscious lips. She was a proper brunette with emerald-green eyes and, aged eighteen, Grace was a woman while Rabbit was still a child. Rabbit would often stare at Grace and wish, If only I could lose me eye-patch, fill out a bit, darken me hair and plump up me lips. If only I could look like me sister.
The eye-patch was gone by the time she’d hit ten but Rabbit, although beautiful in her own right, would never look like her sister. Her poor eyesight didn’t help: the dark brown horn-rimmed spectacles dwarfed her tiny face. They were heavy and slipped down the bridge of her nose, so she spent a good deal of her time pushing them up. Sometimes, when she was thinking hard about something, she placed a finger on them, holding them tight against her face and scrunching her nose. Johnny was the first to call Mia ‘Rabbit’. She insisted on wearing her long mousy brown hair in two high bunches at either side of her head. To him, those bunches looked like rabbit’s ears and, with her glasses, she reminded him of Bugs Bunny in disguise.
Unwittingly, Johnny Faye was a trendsetter. If he decided patches were cool, within days everyone for miles wore patches. If he liked coats worn open and down to the ankles, or short silver jackets or woolly hats with diamonds, they became trendy without so much as a peep from the lads. It was simple. Johnny was cool so anything Johnny did, said or wore was cool. And when he coined the name Rabbit and Mia Hayes happily answered to it, everyone had followed suit within a week, including her own parents.
In Rabbit’s dream, Grace was dressed to the nines in a tight black dress, heels and big red lips. She was going out with a man she’d met at the disco and it was exciting to watch her get ready. Rabbit liked to sit in her room as she applied her makeup in the mirror. Grace didn’t mind, so long as Rabbit didn’t talk. Grace would turn the tape deck on her dressing-table up high and sing along to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’, then Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ ‘Brand New Friend’. She’d play them on repeat and, instead of wasting her own time holding down the rewind button, she’d make Rabbit do it.
‘Stop. Play. No. Rewind. OK, stop. No, rewind. Too far – go forward,’ she said, as she painted her eyelids. Happily Rabbit obeyed, pressing the buttons while her big sister transformed herself from beautiful to exquisite before her very eyes. Afterwards Rabbit followed Grace down the stairs and into the kitchen to where her brother Davey was eating his dinner with his earphones on. Davey always liked to eat alone. He’d wait until everyone else was done, then Ma would heat up his plate, he’d put on his earphones and shovel the food down his neck in the time it took to play two songs. Grace said goodbye to Ma and shouted the same to Da in the back room, watching the news. She didn’t bother saying a word to Davey because he wouldn’t have answered anyway.
Davey was sixteen, tall and skinny, like Rabbit. He had long, mousy brown hair, which hung past his shoulders. Despite incessant slagging from the lads, he insisted on wearing denim on denim. He sat chewing and rapping his knife on the table in time to the music playing in his ears.
Molly called after Grace, ‘Ask him for tea on Sunday.’
‘No way, Ma!’
‘I want to meet him.’
‘Not yet.’ Grace grabbed her coat.
Molly appeared with pink rubber gloves on. ‘Don’t make me track him down.’
‘Jesus, Ma, will you let me live?’ Grace opened the front door and sashayed down the path towards the little iron gate.
Molly sighed and headed back into the kitchen, but Rabbit followed Grace outside to where Johnny was sitting on the wall, playing guitar and waiting for her brother to finish his dinner. Grace said, ‘Hi,’ and he smiled at her, but, unlike the other boys’, his eyes didn’t follow her down the road. Instead he focused on Rabbit and patted the wall. ‘Rabbit,’ he said, and she sat down beside him.
‘You look sad.’
Rabbit’s eyes started to fill with big fat stupid tears and she couldn’t work out why. She really hadn’t known she was sad until Johnny had said it, and it was all a bit of a shock.
‘Spit it out,’ he added.
‘I wish I looked like Grace,’ Rabbit whispered, embarrassed.
‘No, you don’t.’
‘Do.’ Rabbit felt a little sulky but then Johnny grinned at her, and when he grinned the skin around his big brown eyes wrinkled slightly. It made her feel warm inside and out. Her cheeks flushed a little and her tummy flipped.
‘When you’re Grace’s age, you’ll be the most beautiful girl in Dublin, Rabbit Hayes,’ he said. ‘There’ll be nobody else quite like you.’
‘Liar,’ Rabbit said, biting her lip to curtail a spreading wide gummy smile.
‘Truth,’ he said.
She couldn’t think of anything to say so she punched him playfully on the arm, then pushed her spectacles onto the bridge of her nose and held them there while he played his guitar and sang a funny sweet song to her.
Jay, Francie and Louis arrived as Davey came out of the house. Jay and Francie, twins, were Johnny’s next-door neighbours, the heart and soul of his band. Jay played bass and Francie played guitar. It was Jay who had fought for Davey to be drummer after his audition hadn’t gone as planned: he was battling severe stomach cramps and shat himself halfway through the second song. Jay was blond, Francie was dark, and they were both handsome, with short hair, square jaws and a big build. They were also talkers: if they hadn’t chosen music, they could have been a pair of comedians in the morning – at least, that was what Rabbit’s ma always said. Louis was smaller and more serious. He played keyboards and fancied himself as the band leader, although nobody really listened to him even when he threatened to quit, which he did at least once a week. Once Rabbit had watched him lose it in the garage.
‘We could really have something here if yous would all stop mucking around,’ he’d shouted.
‘Stop crying, Free Fatty,’ Jay had said. Louis wasn’t fat, just short and blocky. Francie had observed that he looked like a thin guy who’d eaten a fat one. Since then, much to his annoyance, the lads had insisted on calling him Free Fatty. It was harsh, but not as harsh as Davey’s nickname. Back then, Davey was so thin his hooked nose looked too big for his face. After his audition, when he was walking out of the door with a load in his pants and four fellas crying tears of laughter, Jay called after him, ‘Here, Big Bird, come back when you’re cleaned out.’
‘Big Bird? He looks like a dead fucking bird,’ Francie said, and the twins had called him DB ever since.
Davey didn’t like Rabbit hanging out with the band, so he was quick to tell her to get lost. The lads liked to sit on the wall, chatting, catching up and watching the girls go by before they went into Davey’s garage to practise for a few hours. Davey’s parents were really supportive of the band. His da was a big music fan and his ma was a fan of anything that didn’t include her son washing dishes for a living. Davey got himself thrown out of school when he was thirteen by punching a geography teacher in the face when he’d tried to drop a hand down his pants during a detention. At the time Davey wouldn’t say what had driven him to such an extreme, and word passed around the local schools that his attack had been unprovoked. When no local school would take him in, he had discovered his passion for music. Davey’s first set of drums was a phone book he practised on morning, noon and night, and from the start it was obvious he was gifted. For his fourteenth birthday his da arrived home with a beautiful red drum kit and Davey was so happy he burst into tears. When he played that evening, his parents agreed that, whatever it took, they’d get him to where he wanted to go.
When he joined the band, Davey’s parents could see that they had something – good songs, good musicianship, good work ethic – but, more than that, they had Johnny Faye. If ever a star was born, it was Johnny. He was the real deal. Davey’s da spotted his potential the first time he watched their acoustic set in the local hall one Sunday afternoon. That night they cleaned out the garage, put in heaters, then lined it with egg boxes and heavy draping to soundproof it. Two weeks later, Davey became Kitchen Sink’s new drummer; his family’s garage became their official rehearsal room, Molly and Jack Hayes their biggest supporters.
From the start Rabbit loved being in the garage with her coat and gloves on, watching the lads play and listening to Johnny singing. She’d sit quietly in the corner for hours, so quietly that, hidden behind draping, amps and an upturned sofa, they’d often forget she was there. Sometimes she read a book, others she’d just lie on the floor and listen to them play, banter and laugh. Rabbit could listen to Johnny sing all day. He had such a cool, clear, sweet, sorrowful voice, and despite her brother’s many attempts to get rid of her, Johnny always stood up for her.
‘Let’s take it from the bridge. One, two, three . . .’
Rabbit loved it when her brother counted in before hitting the drum. She loved the bass and guitars kicking in, then Johnny’s voice, giving her goose-bumps and making her spine tingle.
Rabbit spent half her childhood in that garage, listening to her brother and his band rehearse and dream. They were going to make it. After all, one of the lads from U2 had grown up down the road and they were filling stadiums in the USA. It was a sign and, like the lads often said, soon Kitchen Sink would make U2 look like a bunch of bleedin’ amateurs. And Rabbit had been there from the beginning, lying on her duffel coat on the cold hard floor while Johnny Faye sang just for her.
Now the past was so real it sometimes felt more real than the present. It might have been the opiates or perhaps it was because Rabbit was so tired when she was awake that her mind only became energized in sleep. And when she was awake she had to face the truth of her situation. Two weeks ago she had been living with cancer; now they were telling her she was dying and would leave behind her twelve-year-old daughter. Nah . . . I’m just tired. I need a few days to rest and I’ll feel better. I’m not leaving Juliet. No way. Not happening. She couldn’t face it. She couldn’t talk about it. She couldn’t accept it. Instead of forcing herself awake and into the present, she remained in the past, listening to Johnny Faye sing his heart out.
Davey hadn’t slept for more than four hours straight in at least twenty years. That meant it was easy to talk to the family on the phone or Skype, no matter what time zone he was in. He had been playing poker on the tour bus when his mother had called four years ago to tell him his sister had breast cancer. He came home just after her mastectomy when she was hopeful that it had all gone. After chemo and radiation it was gone, but only until the second call had come three years later. He was just about to go on stage when his ma had told him tearfully that it was back in the other breast and in her liver. He’d flown home immediately. Things were bleaker, but Rabbit Hayes was nothing if not a fighter. She would get better, and if she didn’t, the medication would help her manage the cancer. That time, he’d stayed for three weeks, until Rabbit had demanded he go back to work.
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ she’d promised. Besides, he couldn’t let his drum tech step in for ever. ‘What if they realize he’s better than you?’ she asked, and laughed.
‘Funny,’ he said.
‘Go back to your bus,’ she told him, and they hugged. Even though she pretended not to cry, his shoulder was damp when they parted.
That third call, four months back, had taken his breath away. It was in her lungs but there was still hope. She’d see him at Christmas. He wasn’t to worry. She had years in her yet. The last call had come when he was lying in bed in a hotel room in Boston. He was just about to hop into the shower when he saw his ma’s name appear on his vibrating phone. He considered not answering, but then he remembered . . . Rabbit.
‘Hey, Ma,’ he said, but she was silent. ‘Ma?’
She couldn’t speak. All he could hear was her muffled sobs and he knew. He remained sitting on his bed in silence, listening to his mother cry. He didn’t move one inch. He didn’t say one word.
‘It’s in her bones,’ Molly said eventually. ‘She fell in the kitchen – Juliet found her. It’s really bad, son.’
‘I’m on my way, Ma.’
Then his mother had said the most frightening word he’d ever heard: ‘Hurry.’
For ten years Davey had been drumming for a successful female country singer. He divided his time between Nashville, New York and a tour bus. Casey was a Grammy-winning artist and the mother of two boys. When she was recording he lived in Nashville; when she was on tour, he was on tour; when she took some time off he headed to his place in New York. Davey often worked with other bands if they were stuck for a drummer and Casey was on sabbatical, but she always came first, even if he’d never imagined he’d end up playing country music. ‘Life has a funny way of rolling out.’ That was what Casey had said to him when she’d seen her old friend looking wistful. They were halfway through a gruelling tour and venues weren’t selling out like they used to, so she had a very heavy promotional schedule on top of performing most nights. She was mentally and physically exhausted and the last thing she needed was her drummer leaving her in the lurch.
When he’d knocked on her door and called her name, she’d told him to come in. He found her lying on the sofa in her room with a cold cloth covering her eyes. ‘Another headache?’ he said.
‘You need to get that checked.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with me. Hell, it would be a damn miracle if I didn’t have a permanent headache.’ She lifted the cold cloth from her eyes. ‘What?’ she said, sitting up.
‘It’s Rabbit.’ He burst into tears. ‘Oh, God. I’m sorry.’ He was ashamed of the tears but still he cried.
‘Oh, Davey, I am so, so sorry.’ She stood up and put her arms around him.
‘They say she’s dying, Casey.’
Casey soothed him while her PA booked him onto the next flight home.
‘Don’t you worry about a thing. Stay as long as you need to. We’ll be here waiting when you get back,’ she said, and he was grateful: he’d been in the business long enough to know that, no matter how talented a player you were, if you weren’t a songwriter you were easily replaced. But Davey often underestimated himself and his role in Casey’s life.
They had met when he worked in a New York music bar. She was a singer-songwriter, while he was bar-tending and looking for a band to play with. She was petite and pretty, and when she sang, even though it was raw, he knew she had something. They made polite conversation a few times and nothing more until one night a guy came on to her at the bar. She politely declined. He pushed anyway. She said no. He asked her if she was a lesbian and she told him she was. He called her something vile and Davey stepped in, warning him to stay away.
‘What are you going to do about it?’
‘You don’t want to know.’
Later he was putting out the trash when he heard a scream. Casey was fighting off the same guy – he’d waited for her outside. Davey knocked him out with one blow. At the time Casey was living in her car but that night Davey moved her into his apartment. She got the bed, he took the floor, and they had been working together ever since, through a lot of rough times. At one point when a second record company had dropped her, he was the one band member who stayed with her. He gave her that thumping sound. ‘I am the C to your DB,’ she often said. To her he was irreplaceable and they were their own kind of family.
She had walked him to the limo that would take him to the airport. ‘I’m with you,’ she’d said. ‘You know I’m with you.’
‘I do.’ They’d hugged it out.
‘Don’t make me miss you for too long, ya hear?’ she said.
He had sat quietly on the plane, didn’t stir out of his seat or engage with fellow passengers; he didn’t sleep or eat or watch a movie, just thought about his sister and that funny, sweet, precocious little girl of hers. What about Juliet? Davey had missed much of his niece’s short life but even as a toddler she had never failed to recognize him. Her excitement on seeing him always made him feel special. Rabbit kept his photo on the wall and spoke about him often, but it had been clear early on that Juliet and Davey had a strong connection. He dreaded seeing her. Poor Juliet.
When the plane landed, as he had only carry-on luggage he walked straight through Customs to where Grace was waiting. Her eyes filled when she saw him and they held each other tightly for a long time.
‘The car’s this way,’ she said eventually.
‘Where’s Juliet?’ he asked.
‘She’s at ours at the moment but Ma wants her with Rabbit when . . .’ She didn’t finish the sentence.
‘How are the boys?’ he asked.
‘Ryan’s such a lunatic, we’ll be lucky if he doesn’t burn the house down. Bernard needs three grands’ worth of orthodontistry if he ever wants to eat anything chewier than porridge. Stephen’s failing his first year in college and Jeffrey is clinically obese.’
‘You need money?’
‘No, thank you. The diet we’ve put Jeffrey on is saving us a fortune.’ She smiled at her brother and he laughed a little, but then they remembered Rabbit was dying and their smiles faded. They were silent until they were nearly home.
‘How long?’ he asked.
She shook her head as though she couldn’t believe what she was saying. ‘Weeks.’
‘But . . .’
‘She was fine,’ Grace said. ‘The palliative chemo was going great but then she fell over last week and her bone snapped and . . .’
‘Does she know?’
‘She knows, but has it really sunk in? They told us last night and moved her into the hospice today.’
‘Ma is Ma. She’s barely left Rabbit’s side. She’s not sleeping, eating or drinking but she’s insisting everyone else does. She’s in fighting form. She’s Ma.’
‘And you, Grace?’
‘I don’t know, Davey.’ She was clearly struggling not to cry.
When they got home, Davey saw his da standing at the window. Grace used her key so Jack Hayes remained where he was, only turning to face Davey when he entered the room.
They nodded at one another.
‘Have you had your tea?’ Grace asked.
‘I had a biscuit,’ her father said.
‘I’ll put something together.’
‘No, it’s all right. I’ll wait for your mammy.’
‘She could be late.’
‘I’ll wait anyway.’
Jack gazed at his son. ‘You look well,’ he said.
‘Good. Would you like some tea?’
‘All right.’ He walked towards the kitchen, his children following. He insisted on making the tea himself so Grace and Davey sat together at the table, watching him. He had aged ten years in two days.
‘All right.’ He walked towards the kitchen, his children following. He insisted on making the tea himself so Grace and Davey sat together at the table, watching him. He had aged ten years in two days. He was pale and seemed suddenly ancient, even slightly doddery. Until now, seventy-seven-year-old Jack had looked young for his age. He was never much of a drinker, had no time for smoking and had enjoyed sport of all types well into his early sixties. In later years he’d taken to bowls and had become captain of the team. The man muttering to himself ‘Where will I find milk?’ looked nothing like their father. He was a shadow of himself.
Nobody spoke until he finally placed the tea on the table. He sat with his children but focused on his mug.
‘How’s America?’ Jack asked, after what seemed like an eternity of quiet.
‘She’s good,’ Davey said.
‘That last one was a great album. I play it in the car all the time.’
‘And her lovely wife Mabel?’
‘She’s great and so are the kids. It’s all good.’
‘And that other stuff in New York, how’s it going?’
‘I did some studio work for an up-and-coming act, a soul singer. He’s got the talent and the songs, now it’s just publicity and luck.’
‘You’ll go on the road with him?’
‘Only if it doesn’t clash with Casey.’
‘What’s the weather like?’
‘I’ve come from Boston. It’s raining there.’
‘It was snowing here last week. Snow in April, never thought I’d see that. Feels like the end of the world.’ He pushed his chair back and stood up. ‘I’m going for a lie-down. It’s good to have you home, Davey.’
After Jack had left the room, Davey lifted his mug. ‘The end of the world, huh?’
‘Yeah,’ Grace said, and they finished their tea in silence.
Molly was in the canteen when she bumped into Rabbit’s consultant oncologist. Mr Dunne, a short, fit, bald man in his forties, was queuing with a middle-aged woman, who had frizzy black hair, the kind you’d see on a rocker in the eighties. She was wearing a dense wool dress, thick tights with rosebuds on them, a cardigan that matched the tights, with the same rosebuds, and the kind of clunky shoes you’d only see in documentaries about psychiatric patients in the last century.
‘Molly, I’ve just arrived. How’s Rabbit?’ Mr Dunne grabbed an orange.
‘I’m so sorry I wasn’t there yesterday to talk to you myself.’
‘Your friend did a fine job,’ Molly said.
‘I’m so very sorry, Molly,’ he said, and she could tell he meant it, even though he dealt with death every day.
She tried to smile. ‘Thank you, but all is not lost.’
He looked from Molly to his friend and back to Molly. Clearly he was unsure as to whether or not she realized how grave Rabbit’s condition was.
Molly registered his unease. ‘She’s here today, isn’t she?’ she said, and he seemed to relax.
‘I’ll be in to see her in about an hour if you’re still around?’
‘Where else would I be?’
‘Nowhere but here,’ said the woman with the clunky shoes.
‘This is Rita Brown. She’s a medical social worker,’ Mr Dunne said.
‘Nice to meet you, Molly. I’m here for you and your family if you need me,’ Rita said.
‘Thanks,’ Molly said, and moved away. She’d decided against a mug of tea: her stomach was playing up. She looked around for the toilets. Quick, quick, quick, Molly, don’t have an accident. That’s all you bloody need, Arctic winds and no knickers.
She made it to the Ladies, then spent some time washing her hands under piping-hot water. The soap was a luxury brand, which smelt delicious on her hands, not the antibacterial cleanser that hospitals supplied. She looked at herself in the mirror. Molly had always been plump but her weight had served her well in old age until now. Her skin had always been soft and flawless but it was dull now and her eyes were dark holes in her head, surrounded by firm creases. At seventy-two, she asked herself, When did I get so old? Her hair had been grey for many years and she usually added a little silver blonde to it, but since Rabbit’s fall and her subsequent diagnosis, Molly had had little time for anything or anyone else. Now the roots looked bad and Rabbit kept reminding her that she needed her hair done – but how could she spend a few hours at a hairdresser’s when her youngest child needed her most?
She didn’t notice Rita come in as she examined her hair and tried to work out whether or not a hat would be appropriate indoor wear.
‘I can have a hairdresser come to the room for you,’ Rita said, making Molly jump.
‘No, no, it’s fine.’
‘Nothing’s fine, Molly,’ Rita said.
‘No, it’s not.’
‘So I’ll arrange for a hairdresser to come to the room. It will be tomorrow, if that’s OK? She can do something for Rabbit too.’
‘Rabbit’s head is shaved. Her hair never grew back properly.’
‘She’ll give her a head massage.’
‘She might be too tired.’
‘We’ll see how she is tomorrow.’
‘OK, thanks,’ Molly said, and began to leave.
‘Molly,’ Rita said, and Molly turned back. ‘I’m here if you want to talk.’
‘I’ll keep that in mind.’ She left the room.
Rabbit was still sleeping when she got back, but Davey and Grace were there.
‘Hiya, Ma,’ Davey said.
‘Hiya, son.’ She walked up to him and held him close, exhaling loudly as she rubbed the back of his neck. ‘Still can’t get used to the short hair.’
‘It’s been ten years, Ma.’
‘It seems like yesterday.’ She looked from him to Rabbit asleep in the bed. ‘She’ll be awake soon.’
‘Da’s coming in tomorrow.’ Grace said.
Molly nodded. ‘He’s not able. He keeps crying in her face. If she told him to fuck off once yesterday, she told him to fuck off a hundred times.’
Davey laughed a little. ‘Only in this family,’ he said.
They sat down, Grace and Davey on the sofa, Molly in the recliner chair. ‘Did your da eat?’
He’s waiting for you,’ Grace said.
‘I’ll pick up a curry. Speaking of which, how’s Jeffrey?’
‘He reminds me of you, Grace. When you were five you used to eat dirt – I was worried you were simple for a while. Thank God it was just greed.’
‘Thanks, Ma, I feel so much better about things now,’ Grace said. ‘If you want I can make something for Da instead.’
‘I’m not sure he’ll have the stomach for anything,’ Davey said. ‘He looks shook, Ma.’
‘And the rest of us don’t?’ She stared at his tired pale face. ‘We’re all shadows, son. How could we not be?’ Her dark eyes filled but the tears dared not fall.
Rabbit woke when Michelle was changing her Fentanyl patch. ‘There you are,’ she said, as Rabbit’s eyes slowly opened. ‘Your sister and brother are here.’
Grace and Davey stood up and met her gaze with smiles painted on their faces. Davey even waved at her, like a contestant on a quiz show.
‘Jaysus, I’m so bad my siblings have turned into two big goons,’ Rabbit whispered.
‘At least I didn’t wave,’ Grace said.
‘Fuck off, Grace,’ Davey said, in as playful a tone as he could muster.
‘Welcome home, Davey,’ Rabbit said.
‘Don’t want to be here,’ he admitted.
‘You and me both.’
‘How’s your pain?’ Michelle asked.
‘The fresh patch should kick in soon. If it doesn’t, you call me.’ She looked at her watch. ‘I’ll be leaving in half an hour, but before I go I’ll introduce you to Jacinta. You’ll like her – she fancies herself as a singer, so, if you want a laugh, get her to sing “Delilah”.’
‘She’s that bad?’ Rabbit asked.
‘She makes that chicken-stuffer on The X Factor look like Justin Timberlake,’ Michelle said, ‘but she’s good at the day job and she’s a great old egg.’ She winked. ‘Jacinta’ll look after you. Now, how’s the bowels?’
‘I’ll take that to mean they’re grand. I’ll leave you to it.’ Michelle walked out.
‘She’s nice,’ Rabbit said.
‘And pretty,’ Grace said. Davey’s eyes were following Michelle’s arse out of the door.
‘Slow down. You’re only here five minutes,’ Rabbit said.
‘Don’t be making enemies of Rabbit’s nurses or I’ll murder you,’ Molly said.
Rabbit laughed. ‘Yeah, there’ll be two of us in the hole.’ Everyone stopped dead. It was a classic tumbleweed moment. ‘Too much?’ she asked.
‘Too much,’ Grace replied.
‘Hey, Davey,’ Rabbit changed the subject, ‘I’ve been back in time.’
‘Yeah. Back to our wall, back to the garage. I could see you beating the drum, the boys kicking it on guitar, bass, piano, and Johnny singing. I swear I stayed there until you’d all rehearsed every song twice.’
‘You always did.’ He took her withered hand in his.
‘Lying on the cold floor, daydreaming to your music – those were some of the best times I’ve ever had.’
‘That’s not at all depressing,’ he joked.
‘It was lovely, actually,’ she said.
It was then that Grace brought up Juliet. The subject was delicate and Molly dreaded Rabbit’s reaction.
‘Tomorrow,’ Rabbit said. ‘Bring her tomorrow.’
‘But what should I tell her?’ Grace was unable to hide the tremor in her voice.
‘Tell her that her ma loves her.’
‘But . . .’
‘I don’t care what they say. I’m not giving up.’ Rabbit’s eyes were suddenly drowning, and tears flowed as though a dam had burst inside her.
Suddenly she was choking, and Molly was on to it, lifting her up, rubbing her back and soothing her. ‘There, there, my girl, no more tears. We’ll fight and fight and fight.’ She stroked and kissed Rabbit’s head, and when the choking had passed, she laid her down and stroked her cheek until Rabbit’s tears slowly stopped. ‘Go to sleep now, love,’ she said, and Rabbit’s eyes closed. She let out a sigh and was asleep as suddenly as she had woken.
Grace and Davey were horrified. Although Grace was forty-six and her brother forty-four, they were reduced to helpless children standing at the end of their little sister’s bed, unsure what to say or do and desperately willing their mammy to make everything all right.
‘Lenny?’ she shouted to her husband when she arrived at home with ten bags of shopping.
Nine-year-old Jeffrey appeared in the sitting-room door. ‘He’s across the road looking at Paddy Noonan’s new car – well, it’s not new, it’s a 2008, but it’s new to Noonan.’ He took a bag from her, leaving her with the other nine. He looked into the bag. ‘It’s all green in here,’ he said sadly.
‘Get used to green because, until you’ve dropped two stone, it’s all you’re going to be eating and playing on.’ She walked through the hall and into the kitchen.
‘Harsh,’ he mumbled.
‘Where are your brothers?’
‘Stephen’s still in college. Ryan’s in Deco’s and Bernard is upstairs playing Nintendo.’
‘Jesus Christ! Ryan is supposed to come home straight after school.’
‘He told me da he’d a school project to do with Deco.’
‘Lying little toerag,’ she muttered.
Jeffrey sat opposite her at the counter while she put away the shopping. ‘That’s what I said but Da’s a sucker.’
‘Stop watching me,’ Grace snapped.
‘You’re following the food, Jeffrey, and I’m telling you, I’ll have every morsel accounted for. If one morsel goes missing, I’ll chase you with a hammer.’
‘Jaysus, Ma, there’s something wrong with you.’ He got down from his stool.
‘Where’s Juliet?’ she asked.
‘Where she always is.’
‘Is she OK?’
‘Don’t know. She won’t talk to me.’
‘OK. Well, get your tracksuit on. We’re going for a run before dinner.’
‘Wha’?’ Jeffrey was evidently appalled.
‘You heard me.’
‘I’m not running anywhere with you.’
‘Oh yes you are.’
‘I’ll be laughed out of it if the lads see us.’
‘Well, they’ll be the ones who are sorry when you lose all the weight and all the girls want you.’
‘Girls are disgusting.’
‘They’re disgusting when you’re nine, but by the time you’re thirteen, they’ll be one of the few things you think about.’
‘Not if I’m gay.’
‘Well, son, if you’re gay, trust me when I say the body is everything.’
‘You’re so mean!’ he shouted.
‘Get up those stairs and get your tracksuit on.’ She went into the sitting room and sank down beside Juliet on the sofa. The TV was on in the background but Juliet wasn’t watching it. Instead she was buried in a book, which she closed.
Twelve-year-old Juliet looked a lot like her mother had at that age. She had long mousy hair, although hers was layered and had a bounce to it. She was stick-thin and had a pretty little face – no spectacles, but she scrunched up her nose as her mother did when she was thinking. ‘Did you see her?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, she’s all settled.’
‘When can I see her?’
‘Why not tonight?’
‘She’s always tired.’
‘I know, but tomorrow, OK?’
‘When is she coming home?’
‘I don’t know,’ Grace lied.
‘I can take care of her,’ Juliet said.
‘Of course you can.’
‘I know what to do.’
‘I know you do, darling.’
‘So she should be home with me. She doesn’t need a convalescent home.’
That lie had tripped off Grace’s tongue the night before, when she was completely at a loss as to what to say to the child whose mother had just been told she was dying.
‘Let’s see what happens tomorrow,’ Grace said.
Juliet nodded. ‘I just want to go home.’
Grace said nothing, just flicked Juliet’s hair off her face and talked about what she was planning for dinner. Juliet listened politely, waiting to return to her book.
Grace left the room in time to see Jeffrey come down the stairs in a tracksuit that was two sizes too small. ‘Jeffrey.’
‘Is that a joke?’
‘It’s the only tracksuit I have.’
‘Put your jeans back on.’
Delighted, he clapped his hands. ‘Deadly.’
‘You’re running in them.’
‘Ah, for God’s sake, Ma.’
Grace had just changed into her tracksuit when Lenny came into the bedroom. ‘Taking Jeff for a run?’ he asked.
‘I did this to him so it’s up to me to fix it,’ she said.
‘I’m greedy, always was, always will be. Me ma saw that and she wouldn’t let me eat whatever I wanted, so I learned self-discipline. I knew Jeff was like me. I knew he found it hard to say no, but instead of saying it for him, I let our youngest eat himself to the brink of death. What the hell is wrong with me?’
‘Pre-diabetes, Len,’ she said. ‘He’s nine and at risk of type two diabetes, just like his granda, not to mention heart disease, kidney failure and blindness, and it’s my fault.’
He put his arms round her. ‘It’ll work out.’
‘Not everything does,’ she said.
Lenny understood why his wife had taken the news of her son’s health check so badly. She had been scared of losing Rabbit for so long, and now it was happening.
‘How’s Rabbit?’ he asked.
‘She’s bad, Len.’
He kissed his wife’s forehead. ‘All right, my love,’ he said. ‘We’ll do our best by her.’
‘And then what?’
‘And then we’ll say goodbye.’
Grace cried quietly into her husband’s shoulder for a long five minutes.