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The Lean Years

My dad said technology was my mum’s “department”, so I was surprised when he snuck a new laptop into the house when I was in my early thirties and beckoned me into the drawing room to help him to send an email. His email was to be sent to my mum who was downstairs, slogging through the accounts for the business they ran together and cursing. Literally. "Curses!" she would shout in a still-strong Irish accent, a frown creasing her high forehead. "These bloody receipts will be the death of me!" One floor up, the provider of the unruly stack of receipts typed each letter, one thick finger stab at a time, and pressed "send" with a theatrical bow. My dad's first email read along the lines of "Now you can't say I've never even sent an email." Then he rushed downstairs to wait for her to check the inbox. He never opened the laptop again.

Like so many of my dad's schemes and minor acts of mischief, his email was designed to elicit that half-exasperated, half-amused eye roll my mum had been giving him since she approached him at a Ladies' Choice Dance at University College Dublin. I have a photo of them from back then. It's 1958. She's coy, shy, beautiful. Dark hair, a careful curl above one eye. Hands clasped over a satin dress and matching white flats. He's leaning into the picture wearing a tux and a worn greatcoat, with an insolent swagger evident even in black and white and static. Now, more than sixty years later, anyone could still tell this one is trouble.

I never asked my mum what made her choose him. Was her choice an act of rebellion against her strict Sacred Heart boarding school and privileged, small town upbringing? Was the appeal his cocky confidence built up in the hardscrabble Scottish mining town he'd left behind? Or was it that lean? "You've only yourself to blame—you picked me," he'd crow when she grumbled about his latest antics. 

"I did, God help me." 

He often told the story of when they met. His cider-sodden search for Cinderella. He'd been so drunk he'd had to prop himself against the wall and then against her to stay standing. He couldn't remember what she looked like, but he remembered her voice. Low but sweet; the nuns had educated the North Tipperary lilt out of it. He spent days going around campus trying to find that voice. He'd tell the story and my mum would look at him, one eyebrow raised, and roll her eyes.

She rolled her eyes after she'd married him and moved to Glasgow and he took to wearing yellow three-piece tweed suits and a cravat and carrying his grandfather's carved wooden walking stick with its two twisting snakes. She rolled her eyes when the chain of local newspapers he launched went bust, taking everything they had with it. She rolled her eyes when the sure-thing furniture factory went out of business, taking all the kids' savings this time, too. She was too busy trying to feed us to roll her eyes when he finally gave up the drink and some of his grander schemes and renovated an old corn storage shed, renting it out to artists for cash, then renting out each of the two dozen buildings he added, one by one, after that. 

Then, after fifty-four years winning her over, he was seventy-two and she was gone.

My dad was well able to look after himself now he was living alone for the first time. He could ably roast half a cow. He could phone the Indian restaurant. He could more often than not remember to put things in the fridge and not leave them on the counter to grow startling hues of mould. When my mum found out she had only months left, she made him cook a few things over and over, making sure he'd be able to fend for himself. Chicken with honey and mustard. Baked salmon with lemon juice. Spanish omelette, cooked under the grill. So he could manage. But how would he see us on Skype if he couldn't turn on a computer? How would he book hotels, flights or ferries? How would he "make a Bourne DVD play on the internet" at night?

My brother Mark and I booked his flights. We got DVDs sent to the house. We worried. We late-night Skyped, me ushering raccoons off my Toronto deck as we talked, Mark listening for gunshots from behind high, guarded walls in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Then — and neither of us can remember who is to blame — one of us suggested we buy him an iPad. 

He took to it immediately. The iPad spent its days propped beside his chair by the fireplace. It lay on the bed beside him. It went in his crammed-to-bursting point bag when he'd booked flights to Paris, Port-au-Prince, Malaga and Berlin, ferries to Belfast and Calais, trains to London. 

He supported causes: saving bees, Britain's health service, the environment, Scotland. Every day I woke to a barrage of missed Skype calls, WhatsApp alerts, emails and forwarded petitions, scams and software update notices.

He discovered online auctions. Receipts poured in for a chaotic array of items: a Push-A-Long Terrier; a painting called "Ten Wee Shags Holding On Fast";a contemporary Guro chair from the Ivory Coast; a banjo; a Chinese ebonized serving tray; an Azerbaijani runner with a pattern of blue medallions; a set of brass andirons with "tongs, shovel, poker, bedpan and post-horn"; tribal stools from Tanzania; a George III Rosewood sarcophagus tea caddy; a medieval-style broadsword; two Cambodian bronze deities mounted on plinths. Carved wooden figures with emphatic genitalia and five-foot-high golden Buddhas took up positions on every step of the stairs. Shrines multiplied. 

Every week another receipt came for furniture, fertility dolls, prayer wheels, and paintings. "I have varied interests," he said, when I tripped over yet another carved creature with a protruding penis and muttered sourly about the house's latest inhabitants.

He discovered property sites. He spent afternoons internet window-shopping for ruined cottages and ramshackle mills in the West Highlands. His evenings filled with redevelopment plans for entire villages, faded country houses and then ten-bedroom villas with pools in Andalucía.

And then there were the cars. He saw a car he liked, asked the make and Googled until he found one for sale. A Jaguar XJS. 

And then... and then there were the women. The iPad allowed him to email and keep in touch with women with whom he never could have otherwise. And my dad's taste was just as questionable as my mum's had been back in Dublin in 1958. He picked the exact same type she had: gregarious, brash, showy. 

His admirers were many and varied: A friend of my brother's; Women near my age; Divorced women; Women with children; Women with husbands. 

Women flew from other countries to visit him. Women stayed late, later, or didn't leave at all after dinners of chicken with honey and mustard, baked salmon, Spanish omelette, cooked under the grill. My brother and I took to checking with his housekeeper whether it was safe to come home.

"Have we created a monster?" asked Mark.

We had thought we were sharing something that would fill some practical gaps left by my mum's death. But online, there are no boundaries, no safety nets, nobody to shut you down with a disapproving eye roll when you're pushing things too far. 

As my dad waded further into this new life, I became exasperated. I told him repeatedly there is a limit to the number of women, houses and carved Cambodian deities anyone needs, and then I got back to dealing with my mum's estate; all those bank accounts to close, all those clothes to sort, all those books, papers and paintings that hurt me to relinquish. The prospect of having to do the same for my dad loomed. 

I stopped showing any interest in his acquisitions, love life and latest home purchase plans. But the messages, links and emails just kept coming. If anything, the more I retreated, the more extreme they got.

My online habits changed. I started to sign out of messaging and email or simply switched off the router, the technological equivalent of hiding at home with the lights off. The internet had become my dad's domain and I knew if I went there, I'd soon be reminded he was prowling, sending love letters, putting bids on Benin bronzes, Victorian whatnots and Malagueño beach houses.

Looking back, I don't think we created a monster. I think we led an existing monster — a hurt and lost monster — onto the internet where he was free to rampage. We just didn't realise how far he would roam looking for what he had lost. And that's what he's doing, that monster, my dad, going ever further, because no matter how many women my dad dates, how many villas with guest wings he views and how many Gods, Buddhas and puppets he buys, he's looking for the one elusive thing that will win him that half-exasperated, half-amused eye roll and that tiny hint of a snort and find himself back there, eighteen years old, leaning drunkenly, hopefully, hopelessly in love. 

I eventually venture back online and there are all my dad's latest possessions, projects and progress reports sent for me to see. I call and he tells me about his escapades, exaggerating and angling for a reaction, and, finally I take pity, I let go, I give in. I raise an eyebrow and say, "You can probably hear me rolling my eyes across the Atlantic." 

He cackles with delight and shouts, "You're worse than your mother!" 

We finish the call and I unplug the router and sign out of his drama for the night, while he goes galloping off in search of new adventures, new deities, ones he can tell me about tomorrow.


Headshot of poet Elisabeth Murawski
Aefa Mulholland

Aefa Mulholland is a writer, journalist and editor who has worked with The Irish Times, Miami Herald, RTE, The Advocate, Curve, Diva, AOL, the Mysterious Package Company, and others. Aefa’s writing appears in Cagibi, PRISM, Slackjaw, and elsewhere. Born in Scotland, she divides her time between Toronto, Tipperary and Glasgow.


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