Learning To Leave

Image: Lost © Claudia Cantoni

Author: FC

It was Christmas Eve – Mr. Doolan’s birthday. Outside, the roads were covered by a thin layer of wet snow and the city was shrouded in the thick familiar fog of the cold season.

Mrs. Doolan was busy preparing the next day’s festive meals, submerged by a sea of pots and pans. The open kitchen overlooked the living room, where Mr. Doolan sat, pretending to be absorbed by the articles in his hands, whilst the children were on the floor, drawing and writing the Christmas cards to give to the rest of the family the next day. In reality, Brigid was pretending, too: she was not interested in the cards, she just wished that someone would break that deafening silence. Her parents had fought again – heavily. The tension in the room was so thick, that it made it hard to breathe. Niall was signing the last card, writing his name with different sized letters: the n was in capital letters, but the wrong way round, the i was capitalised, the a was larger than the and the two ls were a bit too separated and straight.

“You wrote the n the other way round, again! I wrote your name properly right here, you just had to copy it.”

“Oh, come on Brigid. Give your brother a break, he’s only five years old. These mistakes are normal – you used to do them, too. Dinner will be ready soon. Come get your plates when I call you.” said Mrs. Doolan.

Mr. Doolan put his papers down. “Shall we play a game of backgammon? Or why don’t you two play and whoever wins plays against me.”

“But I’m not good at baggamom.” When Niall whined like that, Brigid just wanted to slap him across the face. Did he not understand how tense the situation was? Why couldn’t he just shut up and do as he was told?

“Fair enough, then. We’ll play together against your sister. How does that sound, Champ?”

Champ. He called him that way just because one of the meanings behind the name Niall is champion. But he was no champion – he was just a whiney baby. Brigid took the backgammon box off the shelf. She didn’t want to complain – she didn’t dare say that she knew she had no chance of winning against her father.

“Come on Brigid, it’s just a fun game! It doesn’t matter if you lose – as long as you’re not as awful as your mother.”

How dare he? How dare he insult her in front of her own children? Mrs. Doolan did not answer. She knew it wasn’t worth it, it would just lead them to another fight – another wave of insults and accusations. She had had enough. She could not bear another round, and the children did not deserve to witness another violent clash.

The pie was ready. Mrs. Doolan had prepared it deliberately for her husband’s birthday – it was his favourite. However, in that moment, she just wanted to throw it, ravish it, destroy it. She was about to implode and make everything around her explode with her. “No”, she whispered to herself, “you need to think about Brigid and Niall, Sive”. She turned around to look at them: Niall was on his father’s lap, Brigid sat on the floor, moving the backgammon pieces. Their children were perfect. Mrs. Doolan asked herself how could they have created such pure creatures: Brigid, tiny and gracious, and yet so strong and wise (“seeing her so grown melts my heart – too much for her age”), and Niall, who looked like a little angel, with his golden locks, blue eyes, as deep as the sea, and his head always in the clouds. “And what about you? Who will you become?”, wondered Mrs. Doolan, grazing her womb with her hand. She turned to the window: just fog. Everything was grey. As foggy as her mind, as grey as her future. She still hadn’t told a soul she was pregnant. Two months had already passed since that night – that last intimate night. They were in the bathroom, getting ready to go to bed, when she began to cry, sat on the edge of the bathtub. He knelt before her, took her hands, and kissed them. For the first time in a long while and for the last time, he was not annoyed by her tears, he had not retreated within himself, he had not repudiated her. That night of sad passion, she had seen in his eyes that wounded, tormented, and frightened boy. That boy she had fallen in love with and was unable to save.

She was afraid of telling her husband that she was pregnant. She feared it would become an inexorable reason to stay together. What kind of mother would leave her spouse with a child on the way? What mother would not give her child the opportunity of living within a united family? These questions plagued Mrs. Doolan – they made her hesitate. A few days before, she had told her parents she was considering divorcing her husband, as she could not bear it anymore. “But you have to stay with him – think about the kids! How do you think they’ll grow up with a broken family? Plus, Cillian isn’t all that bad. He provides for all your needs – he even spoils you! It can’t be that bad.” What did they know? How could they have known about the continuous abuses she had to bear every day? What did they know about what would be best for her children? Growing up in a house full of violence and resentment could not be better than a divided family, surely. Many couples divorce, and the children all seem to grow up perfectly fine – better than if their parents had stayed in their toxic relationship. So toxic it exterminated all the love. He provides. Sure, he provided all the material goods, but at what expense? At the expense of her happiness? Her sanity? No, she could not allow this. Women do not need to depend on their husbands: she would manage on her own, she was strong. One day she would make the right decision.

Brigid was losing. She knew it was going to end that way. At least dad seemed more serene – maybe he had forgotten about his fight with mum and would go say sorry to her. The little girl turned to observe her mother: she was looking outside the window. She wasn’t able to see her face, but she knew her expression was pensive, distant. She often had that air lately, as if she were lost somewhere and didn’t know how to come back – nor how to go forward. “If mum made dad’s favourite pie, maybe she’s not that upset anymore”, thought Brigid, seeing the cake next to Mrs. Doolan. It was a weird contrast: the sweet and warm smell of pastry and Nutella seemed to try to mask the cold and dense tension that still hovered in the air. Usually, in these situations, Brigid closed herself off completely, remaining, however, as alert as a prey – ready to react to any movement. She didn’t know what to do. How could she make things better? She was too anxious to think – she was afraid of making a mistake and causing it all start again. She feared that…

“Daddy”, interrupted Niall, pausing the game. “Why did you make mummy angry?”

“I didn’t make her angry, Niall. She’s the one who made me angry.”

Brigid did not even dare to look up from the gameboard.

“But will you say sorry?”, asked the child naively. He didn’t understand what had happened, but he knew he didn’t like what was going on. He didn’t like seeing his mummy crying and his father shouting at her.

“We’ll see about that.” answered Mr. Doolan harshly. Niall still didn’t understand: when Brigid and he would fight, his parents would force them to say sorry and shake hands. It was easy. Why wouldn’t they do the same?

“Listen, Niall, your mother is a difficult person,” began Mr. Doolan in a low voice. “I love her very much, just as much as I love you guys. Can’t you see? I go to work every day so that we can have everything our family needs, so that you two can have everything you want. This is why, when I’m home, I demand respect – some gratitude for all I do. That’s fair, isn’t it? With all the things I do for you guys… Who do you think pays for the food you eat every day? I mean, true, your mother cooks it, but I’m the one that gives her the money to buy it. Don’t forget about that. Or what about your new play car, who do you think paid for that? Do you know what I had at your age? I had nothing, Niall. No games or toys, no yummy sweets and biscuits – nothing. I have very few rules, but these rules are important – everyone must follow them. When your mother does not obey them, she disrespects me – actually, she disrespects the whole family! This is why I get angry.”

Brigid felt like she had to vomit – she could feel all the words she wanted to say were about to erupt from her stomach. “It’s not true – none of it is true!” Thought the child.

“So, if mummy says sorry first, will everything be good then?” asked Niall.

“Of course, little Champ!” replied his father, smiling. However, that wasn’t what Mr. Doolan really wanted. He was so afraid of losing everything that he was trying his best to keep his children on his side – he was deliberately making Mrs. Doolan appear as the family’s enemy. She was the enemy; she was the one that could take it all away from him. But she loved him – or she had loved him. She wouldn’t take everything away from him, right? Mr. Doolan knew he was the problem. He knew he was the difficult one, the one that was distancing his family from himself. He turned towards his wife and looked at her: she was so beautiful, so elegant in her movements, as if she were dancing. Why wasn’t he able to get close to her? The walls of his pride would not lower. They would not allow him to kneel before her, ask for her forgiveness, explain the truth to her – the terror he felt at the mere thought of losing her every day. He had a perfect life: a wife who loved him, kind and wise, two wonderful children and a job that allowed them all to live well and satisfy their every need. And yet, every time he expressed himself, violent nastiness was all that came out. His pride and his fears took control and he would start attacking her, before even realising it. Hurt the other, before they hurt you. He was completely unable to control himself when he was angry. He reflected all of his self-hatred on others, and then he would raise his insurmountable barricades, estranging all those around him. He feared he’d end up like his own father – he feared he’d go insane. He feared coming back home and discovering his wife had run away with the kids. He feared not ever being enough. He wanted to ask Sive for her forgiveness, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to do so. The more he thought about it, the more his anger and resentment grew. He felt he was about to explode. He had to distance himself – escape. Leave them before they left him.

Mr. Doolan got up.

“Okay guys, dinner is ready! Come get your plates, please.”

He turned around and walked down the stairs, without uttering a word.

“Cillian, where are you going? Dinner’s ready.”

He took his coat and he left.

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