‘SH*T!’ Eimear slammed the baking tray onto the worktop, almost tripping over a child.
‘Out of the kitchen before someone gets hurt,’ she yelled.
The loop of children swerved around her, mad as ants on a summer’s day.
‘Are you alright?’ Daniel was watching.
‘Not really.’ She touched her hair, conscious that the neat-pinned curls were coming loose. There was a splash of something oily on the sleeve of her dress.
‘Let me.’ He transferred the burnt bruschettas to a platter. And with a drizzle of balsamic and some carefully placed basil, he made them look almost edible.
Daniel picked up the plate and took the nibbles to their guests – easy as a gameshow host, flirting, cracking jokes, handing out burnt bits of bread.
Her mother-in-law popped her head round the door.
‘This wine’s very warm Eimear.’ Maggie took a drag of her cigarette, skin stretched tight over sharp narrow bones.
‘Really?’ No-one else had complained.
‘Will I get some ice?’ Maggie made to step inside.
‘No smoking in the house.’ Eimear quick to stop her. ‘I’ll bring you some out.’
Eimear yanked at the freezer, stuffed with the Chardonnay that she’d left in the car. The bags of ice were wedged underneath.
Daniel back beside her. He edged her aside and started repacking contents. ‘There’s too much stuff in here.’
They’d need less food in future. She breathed out slowly, trying to force that thought away. The oncologist’s appointment card was still on the fridge: date and time held in place by a blue magnetic penguin.
‘Mum complaining already?’
Daniel stood up and kissed her softly.
‘Do y’want us to come back later?’ Conor surged into the kitchen, enveloping them both in a big clumsy hug.
‘Happy birthday honey.’ His second wife Maria, never too far behind. ‘Where do you want this darling?’ She handed Eimear a bottle of champagne. ‘Bit boring, but it’s vintage and well…’
‘You shouldn’t have.’ Eimear took the bottle, avoiding the pity that lingered in the gaze.
Conor and Daniel chinked bottles.
‘Seriously mate, you’re looking great. You’ve lost weight. It suits you. Doesn’t it suit him?’ Conor peddled the lies.
‘God, yeah!’ Maria nodded, a little too eager. ‘I wish Conor could shift a bit too. Oh.’ She faltered. ‘I didn’t mean….’
‘What are we doing stuck in here.’ Daniel broke the silence. ‘All the gang’s outside.’
‘And Daniel’s family.’ Eimear forced a smile.
They wandered out to where the rest of their friends drank Mexican lager and Italian wine. And they spoke about football and workloads and the latest pop-up restaurant. Eimear stayed in the kitchen, no longer sure of how to be.
Maggie came to the door.
‘Where’s Danny?’ Her voice wobbled. ‘I want a photie of my boy.’
‘By the barbecue.’ Eimear pointed. Where the laughter was loudest.
She watched Maggie step nearer, her lens zooming closer. A small woman frightened, old and confused; standing in a flowerbed surrounded by gnomes. The sunlight was fading and the sky fell navy down.
‘Are we doing the candles Mum?’ Tara and Sinead skidded in to each other. Still excited; still so innocent. They hadn’t told them yet.
Sinead fetched the cake from the utility room. Victoria sponge. They’d had a photograph of Daniel transformed into topping. One from last year’s holiday. His hair all messed up and eyes green with mischief. The evil there already, though they hadn’t known that then.
The girls gathered up the grown-ups. Daniel made a wish and Conor started cutting; the children still singing as Eimear filmed from her phone.
‘Who wants a piece of Daddy?’
‘Me!’ All of them shrieking as they reduced him to crumbs.
‘Where is it?’ Maggie pushed her way through. ‘Ah Danny? You didn’t wait for me to get a picture.’
‘Sorry Mrs McGuire.’ Conor apologised. ‘Typical surgeon, too keen with my knife.’
‘It’s just a cake.’ Eimear was tired.
Maggie turned on her. ‘It was my son’s 40th birthday cake.
It was a special cake. I might… I want.’ Words sliding away.
Tara looked stricken and all the men started talking.
‘I want a picture of my son.’ Too loud now. Tears on blotchy cheeks. She held up her camera.
Eimear slipped away to the quiet of the study.
Daniel’s father was in there already. A big man broken. His eyes were red and unfocused as he stood before the photos and certificates that told the story of Daniel’s life.
‘Danny’s best malt.’ He handed her a glass. ‘I know where he hides it.’
She sipped quickly. ‘Maggie’s a bit upset.’
‘You mean pissed?’ Frank picked up a CD cover. ‘Ed Sheeran? Is he Irish?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Must be. Look at the head on him.’
‘What about Maggie? Should you not take her home?’
‘You know she’s terrified of losing you.’ The words burst from him. ‘You and the girls; you know you’re all we’ll have left.’
He reached out to hug her and they clung to each other, as if holding in the pieces.
‘I’m sorry.’ Frank’s shoulders rumbled and he wiped at his eyes. ‘Too much sun. Too much of this.’ He nodded at the whiskey.
‘It’s OK.’ She tried to reassure him.
‘We’re here for you Eimear, you know. After the…’
‘I don’t think I can do this.’ Unmet fears escaping and she was crying too.
‘We’ll muddle through together.’ He gripped her hand tightly and there was comfort in that.
‘Is Danny here?’ Maggie half-stumbled in.
‘Why don’t we go and find him?‘ Eimear linked her arm.
Frank took the other side. ‘And then we’ll get you home.’
They walked her between them. In to where Daniel chatted in the kitchen, paler now and tired. The illness finally winning.
‘My two favourite ladies.’
‘Your mother’s come to say goodbye.’
Maggie held on to Eimear and they helped her to the taxi. Daniel waved and the children promised visits. After the party, when all the crying was done.