In college, Niamh and Sarah were inseparable. The sort of inseparable that made a few lads sing K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving” at them as they passed.
You know, dickheads.
Sarah loved five things: her purple Doc Martins, her guitar, changing her haircut, Niamh, and riding dickheads. Well, she didn’t know they were dickheads at the time, but that is invariably what they turned out to be.
Niamh, on the other hand, had a college-long love affair with her course-mate, Paul, which, unfortunately, he had no idea about. She was too shy to tell him that she thought he was, “A grand lad, altogether.” The whole thing was exasperatingly unrequited. For Sarah too. “For fuck sake, either you ride him or I will!” she would say, often.
For those few college years, Niamh was the ember to Sarah’s firework, always there for her when she inevitably crashed back down to earth. Her shoulder was the perfect shape for Sarah’s head. She became an expert in washing her snotstains out of her tops.
Even though there wasn’t a sapphic moment between them, Sarah still made Niamh sing The Indigo Girls song “Closer To Fine” with her for their final year Rag Week talent show, because she knew the dickheads were entering, and “fuck them.” “…and didn’t we win the fucking thing and everything,” Sarah would say, when she told the story of one of the great nights.
But, you should never stand too close to a firework when it’s been lit, and after college, Niamh’s heart was scorched a little when Sarah decided she was “fucking off to Australia.” She was going to waitress her way around the world. Of course she was.
In the airport, it was Niamh’s snots on Sarah’s top that day.
She held Niamh’s face in her hands:
“Now, don’t be a dickhead. Text Paul…or I will.”
Niamh laughed. “I can’t. It’s too late.”
“I’m serious, I’m not taking this flight until you text him.”
Niamh knew that Sarah was exactly that sort of stubborn. She had to do it.
“What would I text him?”
“If it were me, I’d go with the traditional, “I want you inside me,” but as it’s you, I’d go for something a little more subtle, like, “Fancy a pint?””
“Fine!” Niamh typed that, took a breath, and sent it.
Sarah said, “Let me see.”
“Are you happy now?” asked Niamh, showing her.
“Not quite,” and Sarah grabbed the phone off her, typed six digits quickly, and pressed send, before Niamh could grab the phone back.
How much damage could she do with six digits?
After “Fancy a pint?” it said, “Or me?”
“Oh my God, you’re such a dickhead,” said Niamh.
“I know, but that’s why you love me,” said Sarah.
They kept in touch; postcards, letters and then eventually email – when email became the thing – Sarah flitting from city to city, country to country, crisis to crisis, a couple of years here and there; and Niamh, updating her on how things were going with Paul (very well), getting on with the business of living. Literally. She started an alternative health company. It did well. She had the money to visit Sarah for a few holidays. When Paul asked her to marry him after being together for ten years she said, “Yes.” “Jesus, don’t fucking rush into it, whatever you do,” said Sarah, when she heard.
She was in the U.S. then. Niamh was desperate to have her as her chief bridesmaid, but as Sarah charmingly put it, “I barely have cash to buy jam rags, mate.”
On the morning of the wedding, Niamh was in her dressing gown, with her Memmeh fussing around. Sarah rang her to wish her well. That made Niamh cry. “Don’t cry, I mean he’s not that bad…for a dickhead,” which made her cry even more. “In fact, he’s the sort of dickhead that might even pay a fucker’s way home.”
The doorbell rang.
“You might want to go get that,” said Niamh’s Mammy (who never approved of “that Sarah one,” but nevertheless had tears in her eyes.) Niamh dropped the phone, bounded down the stairs, and opened the door. There was Sarah, wearing a bridesmaid’s dress, and a smirk. She even had a haircut that Niamh’s Mammy might call semi-decent. Niamh lept at her, and wailed. “Oi, don’t snot on me dress, now,” said Sarah, “I wouldn’t wear this shit for anyone else.”
Later, at the ceremony, when Niamh hugged Paul at the top of the aisle, she whispered, “Thank you,” into his ear. Paul whispered back, “Well, you could hardly get married without the love of your fucking life being here, could you?”
And that day, she married the right man.
Sarah stayed in Dublin for a while then – “Sure, I couldn’t go back to ‘Murica. I was as illegal as fuck over there. The fuckers would probably shoot me” – and she was there for the arrival of both of Niamh’s daughters. But some things don’t change: Sarah’s lovelife was still a series of unfortunate dickheads.
Five years later, after one particularly egregious dickhead, she ran away to London, and got a job managing a restaurant, where she met Erick, the head chef. And they got cooking. They started their own place, which was a wild success. One weekend, Niamh called Sarah, “I asked Erick to marry me and he said yes.” “You’re marrying Erick with a K?” asked Niamh. “Hey, we’ve talked about this. He can’t help it if his parents are arseholes, can he? Anyway, you’ll be my bridesmaid, right?” “Of course, dickhead,” said Niamh.
And then, in Ireland, the arse fell out of everything. Paul lost his job in engineering. “There’s fuck all going,” he’d say. He was right. Niamh’s rent went up and her sales went down. Whoever said “Money can’t buy you happiness” has never done their weekly shop in Lidl with the very real and gut-wrenching fear that their card will be declined.
They’ve never known what it’s like to desperately want to go to their best friend’s hen weekend in London, and yet know all along they were going to have to text her on the Friday morning and tell her they were sick.
Niamh had gone from worrying about her daughters’ college funds to worrying about food on the plate, and everything else. Stuff she had taken for granted. Facebook was the thing, then, and of course, like everyone, she put up the best of her life. No-one knew how bad it was. She said, “Things are tough, but we’re managing,” to Sarah. She realised that she might have revelled in being the dependable one all their lives. The shame was overwhelming. She didn’t know how to ask for help. Even with Sarah. So she didn’t.
She texted her that morning.
“Sarah, I’m so sorry, but I have a terrible stomach bug and I can’t go.”
“No! You’re actually shitting me?”
“No, I’m actually shitting myself,” Niamh texted.
“I can move the weekend?” Sarah suggested.
“No, don’t be silly, everything is booked. You have the others coming. Have fun. I’m sorry.”
Niamh was sitting up late that night, with the TV on, not watching it. The girls were gone to bed, as was Paul. He often went to bed early, now. She was trying not to think, and failing, and hurting. She never welched on anything, but she saw the next few years stretching out in front of her, missing out on so many things because she had negative money. It was gut-wrenching. She thought, “I have nothing to look forward to.”
The doorbell went. She had the standard thought that every Irish person has when they hear a doorbell at 11pm. “Who the fuck would be calling at this hour?” She opened the door, and it was Sarah.
“Sarah, what the fuck?”
Sarah was holding a bottle of wine, and a packet of Immodium.
“I got the last flight, and I brought these, but I’ve a feeling I won’t be needing the shit pills, right?”
“How did you know?”
“You dickhead. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. I would have stuck a cork in it and come, and so would you,” said Sarah.
Niamh hugged her, hard, for a long time, and cried, and brought her into the sitting room.
“But what about everyone else?”
“Mate, it isn’t a fucking hen weekend without you. I tell you what, we’ll drink this wine out of dick straws, and it’ll be just the same.”
And when they had a glass of wine each, Sarah asked, “So, how bad is it?”
“Well, I’m closing up shop this month, Paul is very unemployed and very down, and we’re going to lose the house,” she said.
“Well, shit. I’ll do everything I can to help. I’ll ride the bank manager if I have to,” said Sarah.
Niamh laughed, like she hadn’t laughed in so long. And then she cried, again.
“How do you do it?” she sobbed. “How do you just keep on going when everything has turned to shit?”
“Do you know how?”
Sarah looked her in the eye and started to sing…
“I’m tryin’ to tell you somethin’ ’bout my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
And the best thing you’ve ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously…”
And they sang the last line together:
“…It’s only life after all, yeah.”