The Epiphany Monday morning: Colin, Boss, Boss is in a bad mood. “Deirdre, I want all the Cork suppliers invoiced this week. Do you think you could have them done by Friday?” “No problem, Colin,” said Deirdre. Thursday afternoon that same week: Mary, Boss approaches my desk, “Geraldine, could you give Deirdre a hand, I’m worried she won’t have the invoices finished by tomorrow?” “No problem,” I said, “but can check you with her first if she’s ok with that?” “I will,” said Mary and she walked away looking for Deirdre. In less than a minute she was back, “Deirdre is ok with it.” “Grand, I’ll finish up here and start on them in the morning.” Deirdre and I are not just work colleagues, we are friends and writing buddies. We’re in the same writer’s group and we attended the Listowel Writers Festival together. We had such a good time there; we booked the same B&B for the festival for the following year. I was more than happy to help my friend. 8 o’clock the next morning, I arrived into work, checked my emails, listened to my voicemail and cleared my desk of all but the absolutely essential items: clear desk, clear mind. I took down the ring binder from the shelf above Deirdre’s desk marked ‘Cork Suppliers’ and took out the index with the list of suppliers – 60 in total – and made a photocopy of it. When Deirdre arrived into work at 9 o’clock, I slapped my hands together with relish and said, “We’re going to do this, Deirdre, how many have you done so far?” “Six.” “Ok,” I said, thinking aloud, “Six from sixty leaves fifty four, cut them in half and that gives us each twenty seven each.” With a ruler I drew a line under West Cork Meat Supplies and turning back to Deirdre, said, “It’s do-able. If you continue to work from the top down, I’ll work from the bottom up, we’ll have them done by the end of the day.” “Grand.” I had covered for Deirdre when she was out on sick for three months the previous year and so I was familiar with her particular invoicing process. I settled down to hammer through my list of twenty seven. At 11 o’clock, I asked her how she was doing. “Grand,” she said. “We’ll beat this deadline yet, Deirdre.” I said. She smiled at me. I worked through my lunch break. Deirdre took hers. When she got back, I was twelve invoices short of my target. At 3 o’clock, I called out to her, “Only six more, Deirdre how’re you doing?” “Grand,” she said. By 4 o’clock I had a splitting headache but was on course to be finished by 5 o’clock. Pride flooded through my veins as I galloped onwards and upwards. Knight Geraldine on her white stallion rides in to save the day. I didn’t even stop to make a cup of tea. We were going to make it: I could feel it in my bones. I called out, “How many have you got now, Deirdre?” “Six,” she replied. At 5 o’clock, Deirdre stood up, snapped off her computer, picked up her hand bag and with a breezy, “Enjoy the rugby,” she walked out. I heard her but when I tried to stand up I fell back again into my seat. Stiff from sitting in the same position for eight hours, I was hardly able to support my own weight. “Where’s she going?” I said “Let it go,” said Maria who worked alongside me. “Let what go? Where is she?” “It’s not your problem.” “I know it’s not my problem. It’s her problem. So where the fuck is she?” Mary came out of her office and hurried towards us, “What’s the matter?” “Deirdre has still six invoices to do and she’s gone.” Mary nodded sympathetically, “That’s Deirdre for you, she’ll let you down every-time.” “But that’s not good enough,” I cried. I was confused: Deirdre was my friend. I was helping her but she walked out on me. We were working on her deadline not mine and yet she was gone. “Did you get all your invoices done?” asked Mary timidly. “Yes,” I said, “I just need to post them.” “Let me check them first,” said Maria, “in case there are any errors.” I wanted to stab her. She wants to check me for errors. Why didn’t she stop Deirdre, the butterfly, the person responsible for these invoices, from flitting? I handed over the invoices in sullen obedience. It all felt so utterly wrong. That evening I collected my husband from work, “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me today,” I said. He waved me away, “I’ve had a shit week; I don’t want to hear it.” I had to work this one out on my own. I didn’t sleep that night. I meditated. I went for a run. I poured it all out on paper. None of the usual methods worked: self-righteousness burned through my body. By Sunday evening I was exhausted. I asked myself over and over again, ‘what would a wise man or woman do?’ and finally I had the answer. First of all, the wise man or woman would calm down. I calmed down. I let all the rage and hurt drain out of me. It was then I had the epiphany; what Deirdre did was not personal. She didn’t do anything to me. Deirdre’s behaviour on Friday is simply how she operates in the world and this is why she gets sick. I decided to forgive her. I had learned – the hard way – that holding a grudge is hard work: first of all you have to remember that you have the grudge and then you have to constantly stoke it to keep it alive and relevant. I just didn’t have the energy. On a practical level, I will be sharing an office with her for probably the next five years and choosing to resent her would me my working life toxic Monday morning. Colin is on a day’s leave; Mary chairs the meeting. “Deirdre, how are the invoices going?” asked Mary. “Grand,” said Deirdre, “With Geraldine’s help they’re nearly all done.” “How many have you done, Deirdre?” “Twenty-one.” “And how many have you done, Geraldine?” said Mary turning to me. “Twenty seven.” I said quietly. Mary turned back to Deirdre, “So Deirdre, between Monday and Friday you did twenty one invoices and Geraldine does twenty seven in one day. Do you think you could finish the rest today?” Deirdre nodded. She didn’t say anything. When the meeting ended, Deirdre stood up quickly and walked over to me. She stooped down to whisper in my ear, “Some friend you are, you really showed me up today.” I was stunned and outraged all over again. After work I collected my boys from their child-minder, Bridget who is also a very good friend to me. I told Bridget everything. “And now SHE’s sulking with me AND she’s been blanking me all day, what do I do?” I said. “Blank her back,” said Bridget. I slept badly that night but the next morning I decided to follow Bridget’s advice. All day Tuesday, I ignored Deirdre. It was pathetic behaviour but I actually found it peaceful. The following morning, Wednesday, I arrived into the office just after 8 o’clock; Deirdre was already there. She was waiting for me. “Could I have a hug?” she asked. She caught me completely off guard but I managed to say, “OK.” We hugged. Deirdre then stood back and tilting her head gently to one side said, “Could we forget about Friday?” I struggled to understand what was happening but again I just said, “Ok.” Talking to Bridget again that evening, we tried to fathom Deirdre’s behaviour. “Who knows how her mind works,” said Bridget “but you did the right thing. By not getting angry with her you gave her the space to step forward and make amends.” Five years later, I appreciate now that the entire incident with Deirdre in March 2011 was a tidy little nutshell in which I experienced pride, betrayal, disappointment and hurt but I also got to practice compassion, forgiveness and detachment. I ought to thank Deirdre for this lesson but she has since moved office but also, because of the nature of her illness, I don’t think she would see it the way I do.


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Rhubarb Time

“No wonder people drink in this country, the weather drives them to it,” said Greta as she sipped her 15th cup of tea that day.  Marie, Greta’s younger sister by 16 months, threw open the caravan door and squinting up at the low, grey skies said, “I think it’s brightening up.”    “You’ve said that every single day since we got here,” replied Greta, “I’ll put it on your gravestone.”

The caravan belonged to Marie and was tucked into a sand dune on the edge of Farmer Griffin’s field just outside the village of Ventry in County Kerry.  When Marie invited Greta, an expat living in Hong Kong, and her boys to spend part of their summer break with her, Greta jumped at the chance to spend quality time with her sister and nephew, and for her three sons aged 8 months to 6 years to experience ‘real Ireland’.

The relentless rain kept everyone but Marie inside.  Every morning, Marie stepped out into the rains, over the dunes and into the sea.  She told Greta the water was actually warmer when it rained.  An hour later she would return, her legs purple with the cold and her waist length hair matted like seaweed.  “It’s lovely once you get down and you feel so alive afterwards,” she told Greta.  Greta remained unconvinced.  She likened swimming to banging your head against a wall and the only pleasure in it was when you stopped.

The rain alternated between down pour and drizzle for five days now.  With no running water, heating, radio or TV for entertainment except endless cups of tea and chat, the quality of the sisters’ time together deteriorated as did their tempers with the dragging of each passing day.  Chatting had become dangerous after Marie suggested on day two to a session of “Tell me five things that are good about me and five things that are not.” It ended with Marie sulking until tea-time.

Their immediate neighbour, Celeste was one of Marie’s oldest friends from school.  Celeste had the personality and wit of a floor mop.  When Greta first complained on Kerry’s capacity to absorb so much rain, Celeste told her, “The weather was fine until you got here.”

Greta did manage to carve out one bright spot to her day – the Dun an Oir Pottery café.  The pottery was drab and never seemed to sell but the café itself overlooked the Blasket Islands.  More importantly the two women who ran the café served the most exquisite rhubarb crumble in generous slices smothered in real cream.  Every afternoon, between three and four o’clock, the two sisters and their four boys would pile into Greta’s car and tear westwards over the mountain with only one thing on their minds, rhubarb crumble….

Day 6 and Marie returned from her morning swim.  She stood before the tiny mirror nailed to the wall quietly raking a comb through her hair until it crackled with static.  Without looking around Marie said, “You think you’re so perfect, don’t you?”       Greta, sitting at the table flicking through a 4 year old edition of Hello magazine glanced up at sister and said, “Talking to yourself again, are you Luv?”  Marie turned to fully confront her sister and with a knowing smirk on her face said, “You think you are so perfect with your perfect little boys and your perfect husband.  You’re over there in Hong Kong with your live-in helper and your perfect little life.”  Greta cocked her head to one side and said, “Jealous are we?”   But Marie was not to be put off, “You think because you have money you’re better than all of us but let me tell you, Sonny Jim, I’m the one who has it made.  My life is better than yours.”  Greta sniggered.   Marie smiled down at her sister and wrenching open the broom cupboard door started to root around the upper shelves to look for the chocolate digestives she kept hidden there.  Greta took the bait.  She said, “You’re the one who got to go to college but dropped out after one year.  You invested all your savings in your boyfriend who then disappeared and you never saw again.  You got pregnant by a drunk from Bantry and had to raise a son on your own.”

Marie withdrew from the cupboard, her mouth slack with dismay.  Greta glared back at her sister defiantly and said, “If you can’t take it Marie, don’t dish it out.”  Marie put her head back into the cupboard and continued her search for the biscuits.  Greta, sensing her sister’s hurt, moved to make amends.  “On the other hand, considering the crap decisions you’ve made, you’ve done a great job turning your life around: Jack is a credit to you; you have a job you love and you have this little gem by the sea.”      Marie withdrew her head from the cupboard again.  She found the biscuits.  She smiled weakly and said, “Thanks.”

Greta got up from the table and put on the kettle.  After she made the tea and put cups and milk on the table, she sat down again.  She helped herself to a biscuit and said, “What brought all that on anyway?”  Marie dipped her third digestive into her tea and worked hard to suck the chocolate off.   She said nothing for a few minutes and then removing the sodden biscuit from her mouth, she looked slyly at her sister and said, “You don’t like Celeste do you?”   Greta rolled her eyes wildly and with a loud groan said, “I don’t actually dislike her but my God she‘s miserable. She whinges and moans about everything.   Her kids are as wild as rats.  Her caravan is a tip and the way she goes on about money, she’s obsessed about the cost of everything.”

At that moment, there was a bang on the door and without waiting for an answer, Celeste entered the caravan.  The two sisters stared at their unexpected guest.  “I was bored over at my place so I thought I’d come over here for a change,” said Celeste, smiling down at the two women.  Celeste’s pink cheeks, wet and shiny from the rain puffed gently from the sudden exertion.  Sensing all was not well, her smile faltered.  Suddenly Greta slapped her hands down on the table making the other two women jump, “It’s rhubarb time,” she said.

“Oh, I can’t”, said Celeste, backing away from the table, “I have to get the dinner ready.”    Greta smiled brightly at her and said, “I’m buying.”  Celeste hesitated for a few seconds, “I’ll go and get my coat,” and flinging open the caravan door she dived back out into the rain.