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Although she couldn't prove it, Niamh Farrell was almost definite that her mother-in-law was trying to kill her.
"Just look at the evidence" she proclaimed to her recent husband - the fabulously named Oliver - from the passenger's seat of his Audi,
"Every time we go over to that house of hers for Sunday Lunch I come home sick as a dog, and spend the night with my head in the toilet. Every time, Oliver." She stared impatiently at him. He didn't reply or react. He fixed his eyes ahead, squinting elaborately through the fog.
"Well?" she insisted eventually.
"Well what?" said Oliver, "What are you telling me? That my mother's poisoning you? Just listen to what you're saying. It's ridiculous. It doesn't even deserve a response."
"And what about the vomiting?"
"Look Niamh, there's a lot of fog on the road. I need to concentrate. It's obviously an ingredient she uses. Didn't you say you were allergic to peaches?"
"Peaches? Peaches don't make me vomit, Oliver. And who uses peach in a Sunday roast?"
Oliver could only muster a frustrated exhalation in reply.
"Rita's had it in for me since day one. She's never even tried to hide it. She always had her eye on that Suze Davis one for you."
"What are you on about, love? Mum doesn't have it in for you. On the contrary, I think she's been very good to you. And hasn't she helped us out with money? And with the wedding? As for Suze Davis, I don't know where you're getting that from. She hasn't mentioned that name to me in months. Certainly not since the wedding." He briefly took his eyes off the road and smiled at her, that faraway half-smile that had so beguiled her in the first place. "Look, please stop this silliness, Niamh. Mum doesn't hate you. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. And she's certainly not trying to kill you or anything! Her food mustn't sit well with you, that's all. We'll find something for you in the house. Okay?"
Niamh's militant adamancy softened as she realized the silliness of her position. "Okay. Let's drop it then," she whispered, resting her head against the window. What a day! Sundays had always been unhappy for Niamh, ever since she was a schoolgirl, when on that day the dread of another week of nuns would begin to pester her. A similar feeling was creeping into her stomach now, fixed on that evil dish waiting for her behind sinister curtains of steam. She could almost smell it. She tried to ignore it, staring sleepily at Ireland rolling by outside, the damp bit of Ireland in her view; the rows of drooling hedges, and the big dark clouds hanging low in the distance, and the child in the hooded rain jacket sitting miserably at a lonely roadside stand for Wexford strawberries.
The wet road seemed to be manifesting itself before her eyes from the cerements of grey fog. Way across the dark fields she could just about see Rita's mansion coming into view, a glorious monolith of colonial dominance amidst the wildness of the Irish midlands. The whole world - the rain battered hedges and the boy's strawberry stand and the wet darkness - seemed to be a single twisting driveway leading to Rita's house.
They stepped out of the car, slamming the doors shut, stretching and yawning, remarking on how bloody cold it was. There were other cars parked there. Niamh recognized a silver Mercedes as the car of Oliver's brother, and his uber-thin Canadian wife, Carol. Great. If the food didn't make her vomit, the small talk about the value of bell peppers certainly would.
"Mum's kept the place well."
"It always looks nice."
Their feet crunched on the cobblestones as they walked to the door. It was a sound Niamh had come to associate with illness. Oliver rang the doorbell. They could hear the ding-dong echoing through the halls.
"Don't tell your mother anything about what I said" demanded Niamh.
"Believe me, I won't."
The door opened slowly. Rita's rumpled little face appeared.
"Oliver! You made it! We're almost ready. We thought you'd be dead late."
They stepped inside. The warm house was filled with laughter and the smell of cooking. Niamh rolled her eyes as the five foot troll embraced her son. "Niamh brought you wine," smiled Oliver, needlessly pointing to her. "So she did," said Rita coldly, "very thoughtful. Close the door there, you're letting a terrible draught in." Niamh was so used to this icy dismissiveness that it ceased to effect her. She closed the door and followed them through stale hallways filled with old school photographs and nude paintings, towards the dreadful merriment of the dining room. All the while Niamh couldn't help but feel like a stranger in someone else's home, amongst someone else's family. Even Oliver, her only link to these alien beings, suddenly seemed as unknown and unknowable as the ghosts she felt drifting around her.
"I'm telling you. Bell peppers are the way to go. Just slice them up. Put them in a salad. Beautiful. I'm telling you."
Carol's blathering for once proved useful to Niamh, who could nod along agreeably while glancing over her shoulder at the kitchen, where Rita was furiously stirring some cauldron.
She looked across the table to her husband, who had noticed her incessant peering. "How about you go in and help mummy with the cooking?," he suggested, with such a clumsy attempt at subtlety that he may as well have been winking and nudging. But, before Niamh could answer, Rita came into the room protesting, in her gory orange apron. "No no no! Don't get up Niamh. I don't want a bit of help."
So she didn't get up, she just poured herself another glass of wine, watched Carol blankly as she spoke of this and that, with an overbearing sense of Why Am I Here? ringing through her brain, ringing above all other thoughts and sounds, like tinnitus.
And soon dinner was ready. Rita came in with a plate for everyone. "Here you are, Oliver. And Carol. And Darragh. And that's for you Niamh."
A plate of roast beef sat in front of each guest, and they each in turn remarked on how lovely it all looked, the gravy and the crispy potatoes and the veg. Except for Niamh, who glared at the meat through the shimmering column of steam, carefully inspecting every morsel of it. Everyone else had started theirs. She wondered if she could mutilate the food enough to make it look like she'd had some. She overturned the slice of beef with her fork, prodding a sweaty piece of fat with disgust. That aul one couldn't make her eat this if she forced it to her mouth.
"Niamh, love?" Oliver's voice nearly made her jump. "That portion looks a bit big for you. How about we swap?" Rita looked up suddenly, evidently not charmed by this proposal.
"Okay, Oliver" she said, with a renewed affection for her man.
They traded plates. Darragh and Carol were amused by this, but Rita seemed positively distraught. It was as if she'd been dealt a mortal blow. Niamh probed the bedraggled eyes of her mother-in-law, which were fixed on Oliver, as he filled his fork with beef and rubbed it in the thick, expensive gravy.
"Oliver…" Rita whispered.
Ignoring her, he gingerly started chewing. Suddenly Rita stood up, her hand pressed to her mouth. "I knew it," mouthed Niamh. Everyone looked up suddenly, Oliver froze. "Spit it out, son. Spit it out!"
"Why? What's wrong with it?" enquired Darragh, watching his brother empty the contents of his mouth into a napkin.
"I'll tell you what's wrong with it" said Rita, speaking aloud for the first time, "you're mother has put something in it. Something to make me sick. Every time I'm over for Sunday lunch it's happened, without fail." She could feel her hands shaking, her face blushing with fury.
All eyes turned accusingly to Rita, still staring guiltily at Oliver, who now faced her.
"Tell us that isn't true" he said, louder than he'd intended.
Rita looked around the table, silently pleading for sympathy. Seeing that no mortal would offer any, she turned to the crucifix above the window, and crossed herself. "A mother will do what's right for her son" she muttered conclusively.
That did it. Niamh threw down her napkin and, in a gesture that surprised even herself, pulled off her wedding ring and threw it into the gravy boat with a decisive plop.
"I'm done Oliver. I'm done with this family. I'm done with this house, and you with your judgements, and Carol with her tai chi. And I'm done with your lunatic of a mother."
Feeling hot tears building up in her eyes, she stormed out into the hall and slammed the door behind her.
And Rita just stared quietly out the window, as Niamh climbed into the car and started the engine. She watched as her son ran out after her, calling helplessly. She watched him follow the car down the long driveway, disappearing in the silver twilight mist.
She turned around to the stunned remaining family members. "A mother will do what's right for her son" she demanded, more sure of it than ever, "Jesus knows it, and Jesus understands. A mother will do what's right."