Queen of the Castle

From the beginning I considered my sister-in-law Louise a 10% – 90% mix.

The 10% plus was predictability and a cheerful disposition.  You always knew where you were with her, and any certainty in an unsure world is welcome.  On the 90% minus side, she was such a perfect housekeeper, brilliant with the needle and slim.  Compared to her I was a failure as a wife and mother, slovenly, cack-handed and fat.

In order to hold onto a few tatters of self-respect, I avoided Louise as much as possible. A pity really, as it also meant avoiding my brother Dermot, of whom I’m very fond.  There are only the two of us, and we used to spend a lot of time together before Louise came along. There’d been an on and off sort of girlfriend called Mary Carey who Terry and I both liked, and who we fervently hoped would become Mrs Dermot Byrne some day.  Until I unwittingly put the kibosh on their relationship, that is. We were planning our holidays six years ago when I made the fateful suggestion.

“How about hiring one of these Shannon cruisers?” I said idly.  Someone had given me a brochure and it looked different and exciting.  “We could get a four berth and ask Dermot and Mary to come too.”
The idea had caught on and the cruiser had been booked.  Shortly before we were to go, Dermot had a fierce row with Mary, who never wanted to see him again.  As there was no hope of a reconciliation before the holidays, he’d asked Mick instead, if that was OK? We’d been sorry but not surprised. Dermot’s tangled love life was nothing new. Mick was a good friend, and we were lucky he could make it.  

On the appointed day, we left Dublin in fine weather, progressed northwards in steadily worsening conditions and reached Carrick-on-Shannon in a cloudburst. Unremitting rain accompanied us for the whole fortnight. We lived in a permanent state of squelchy dampness and escaped whenever we could to the warmth and dryness of the nearest pub.

There we joined other refugees from the river and swopped horror stories of waterlogged wellies and fungus covered food.

Louise entered the picture on our last night. Without even trying, she graced her bar stool as though it were a velvet throne. The females grew squint-eyed with envy, the male clientele went into a collective swoon of adoration. Worst smitten was my brother Dermot. I knew poor Mary Carey had had it when I saw the boiled gooseberry look in his eyes.

After that there was no stopping him. His sole aim in life was getting a wedding ring on Louise’s  finger, and getting it there fast.    

I was pregnant when they got married, and already bulging in all the wrong places.    It goes without saying that Louise was a beautiful bride, and I hated her throughout the wedding ceremony, throughout the reception and even after they’d left on honeymoon.

Over the next few years I endured Louise’s perfect home, her blonde well behaved baby, and the high fashion clothes she seemed to run up out of old kitchen curtains. Coping with our two mini thugs and trying to keep half a step ahead of chaos took up most of my time.  Avoiding Louise accounted for the rest.    

I’d probably have gone to the grave pursuing my single minded survival strategy if it hadn’t been for THE SCORCHING OF THE SKIRT. Too high a setting on the iron resulted in a scorch mark as big as your fist on the skirt of my precious silk suit, which I’d been planning to wear to Terry’s staff “do” that night.  I hadn’t another decent thing, and couldn’t even borrow.  Being a size or two larger than all my friends was a right old pain.  

“Come on Jo,” I admonished myself.  “This isn’t the time to panic. Think woman – you’ve got to wear something tonight.”

Could the skirt be mended?  Not by me anyway.  I wouldn’t even be let near a mailbag if I ever ended up in jail.  No, this repair needed a touch of the magic fingers.

Louise!  No, I couldn’t possibly.  After a fruitless review of my friends and neighbours – all sewers of a sort, but none within spitting distance of my sister-in-law, I knew there was nothing for it but to bite the bullet.    

“Jo?” Louise’s voice sounded surprised.  No wonder –  I couldn’t remember  when I’d last rung her.  O God, this was awful.  Now I knew what the expression gall and wormwood meant.

When I’d gabbled my way through the reason for my call, I fully expected her to say she’d love to help, but unfortunately they were just off to the French Alps on a ski-ing holiday, or she was busy preparing a gourmet meal for twenty.

“Gosh Jo. That’s terrible,” was all she said.  “Come on round and I’ll have a look.  See you soon.”
For the first time since I’d known her, Louise was less than perfect when she opened the door.  Her hair was lank, her make-up sketchy and her slimness almost gaunt. Her little girl, now three, clung to her hand and was peevish and red-eyed.  I stood foolishly clutching my plastic bag and feeling like an intruder. What had I barged into?

I was ushered into the kitchen, now far from the showpiece I remembered from my last reluctant visit.  Astonishingly, Louise didn’t seem to mind me seeing the mess. All was definitely not well.

“Anne has had a tummy bug for days,” she explained. “Dermot is in England on business till Friday and I’ve had to call the doctor twice.  He says it’s only a sort of gastric ‘flu, but I’m worried.  I wish Dermot was here!”
Only then did I remember that Louise’s parents lived in Waterford, and that her only sister had emigrated last year.  It must be awful not having your family around when you need help.  There was me of course, but I was worse than useless, wasn’t I?
I dropped into a chair and lifted Anne onto my lap.  For some reason small children seem to take to me – it must be my joke of a face.  Anyway, Anne gave me the once over, decided I’d do, and promptly fell asleep.  Louise sat across the table from me, and for the first time ever, we really talked.

In the next half hour or so a different person took shape for me.  To be more honest, I began to see the human being behind the wall of my prejudices, and discovered she was definitely worth getting to know, if she’d let me.    

“Where’s this famous skirt?” she asked, several coffees later.  By now I was sitting on the bag in an effort to hide it.

“Forget it Louise,” I protested.  “The last thing you need right now is a sewing session.  It’s only an old dinner anyway and I’m not pushed about going.  Terry can let his hair down if I’m not there!”
She wasn’t listening.  Despite my efforts, the bag was dragged out from under me, and the now badly creased skirt extracted.  It looked a total mess as Louise examined it critically.  She patted the scorched part reassuringly.

“I think I can do something.  I’ll just……….”  She saw the blank expression on my face and laughed.  “Never mind, you look after Anne and leave the rest to me.”

While I sat holding the sleeping child, Louise disappeared next door, and soon I heard her singing and making all the usual sewing noises.  She actually sounded happy!

Some sort of miracle was performed in that room, and in less than an hour my skirt emerged, restored and pressed.  What could I do after that but take it, thank her and run?    
“I’ll ring you tomorrow,” I called as I dashed for the car, “and if Anne’s better by Sunday, why don’t you all come over for tea?”

She was, and they did, and do you know something? She’s O.K., my sister-in-law Louise.

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