By Rachael Llewellyn
On the morning of her graduation, Moira was woken up by her housemate, Gretchen, fighting with her mum about shoes. The build-up to graduation had mostly consisted of Gretchen hyperventilating about all the ways in which her mum could potentially embarrass her.
“You’re so lucky you don’t need to worry about that,” she’d said – Gretchen was one for making tactless statements.
Moira doubted that her mother even knew she was graduating today, let alone what type of shoes she should or shouldn’t wear to the ceremony.
While Gretchen struggled to get extra tickets so her two little sisters could attend as well as her parents, for Moira, just her father would come to watch her graduate. Her brother, Jacob, was spending the summer in Spain with his girlfriend and her parents. Moira’s youngest brother, Chris, had been grounded and was not permitted to leave his bedroom for anything outside of a trip to the toilet. Alexander, Moira’s older brother, had vanished from her life around the same time her mother had, leaving her to manage the moods of their stern, perpetually scowling father.
As Moira showered and tended to the black bags under her eyes, she decided that this would be a good thing. As one of four, she never really had any one-to-one time with their father; and she was the first of his children to go to university, the first to graduate. This wouldn’t be like before. This would be different, special.
This was going to be a good day.
Today was going to drag. As Moira inched her way through Boxing Day traffic, she attempted to mentally prepare herself for the shambles to come.
Her Aunt Penelope had hosted a Boxing Day party for friends, family and colleagues ever since Moira was seven, so she knew to keep her expectations nice and low. She’d become an expert in listening to her Aunt’s former business partner’s long rambling stories. The only thing that didn’t help with this year, was that Moira would be going into battle alone.
Jacob, always their Aunt’s favourite, claimed to have a last-minute emergency at the office. This was a lie, Moira could see from his Instagram story that he was drinking merrily in a bar in Piccadilly. And while her youngest brother, Chris, would be there, having Chris as your ally was a bit like trying to win a game of poker with nothing but Jokers in your deck. Last year, Chris drank all the sherry, plonked himself in the lap of Aunt Penelope’s elderly neighbour, and proceeded to tell him what he wanted for Christmas. In Chris’s defence, the man had resembled a certain other bearded man, but still…
No Alex, of course.
Moira managed to park across the street as her aunt’s drive was crowded with cars. The ground was icy and she skidded slightly – having to grab her car for support – as she went to get the bottle of scotch from the boot.
Her Father would be there today, and he was bringing her. But that was fine! Today was going to be fine. She could hear music from inside, Moira took a deep breath and knocked on the door. Her Aunt answered seconds later, red-faced and smiling. The smile frosted ever so slightly when she saw who it was.
“Happy Boxing Day, Auntie!” Moira said.
“Ah, Moira, so good to see you.”
For as long as she could remember, her Aunt had spoken to her in a tone of voice that would imply that she was the star of a talk show whose audience consisted of very, very young children. It had irritated Moira at five, so at twenty-five, her patience felt a little bare.
“I bought you some scotch,” she said.
“Wasn’t that nice of you,” her aunt cooed, taking it. She pushed up her cats-eyeglasses to examine the label. “Ah, blended. How lovely. I believe I should have some soda to mix it with. Perhaps. Well, do come in. It’s lovely to see you! Though I see you didn’t manage to bring a young man with you.”
“I’m not dating anyone at the moment.” It was the same excuse recycled from last year. It had been a lie then as well.
“You career girls,” Aunt Penelope said scornfully. “Even your Daddy brought a date.”
Over the years, more than one person had described her as a Career Girl. At twelve, with exams and homework occupying her every thought, Moira had been flattered when her father and aunt called her that. It felt like an acknowledgment of her hard work and maturity. Like they could see that it was a good thing that she was more interested in statistics and learning Spanish than what Robbie Matthews was doing with his hair now.
Alex had shattered that illusion for her. Uncomfortable truths were a speciality of her brother.
“Have you ever noticed that there aren’t any ‘Career Boys’?” he asked as the two of them waved to their Aunt’s car as she pulled off the drive. “It’s almost like they’re implying you’re doing something weird.”
After that, any pride she may have felt at being a ‘Career Girl’ instead of ‘boy crazy’ or a ‘girly girl’ completely went away. It was more like a slap in the face. A box they thought she could cram herself into.
“You should’ve worn your hair up,” her father said on the drive to campus. “Your mother always wore hers down.”
She touched a loose curl, wincing. Dad hated anything that reminded him of her mum. After the accident, he gave away all her clothes and jewellery to charity. Moira and her brothers returned from school to find he had taken down all of her pictures. But he found other places to see his ex-wife. Though Moira had her father’s dark hair, olive skin and bright eyes, her sex made her just like her mother. Another accident waiting to happen.
“I thought it looked nice?” she said. “And I wasn’t sure how it would get dislodged with the cap, you know?”
“It looks messy, like you’re an extra from Where the Wild Things Are.”
Moira felt heat flood to her face. Wordlessly she reached into her clutch to see if she had any clips to rectify the situation. She reached up for the overhead mirror, but Dad slapped it away sharply.
“Well there’s no point trying to fix it now,” he said.
Moira looked down at her stinging hand and tried to make sure her mascara didn’t run before they got to campus.
The party was full of all the usual suspects. Everyone ever so casually over the age of sixty. It was like a game of Guess Who as the party guests became more wrinkled as the years went by. She’d been cornered already by her aunt’s friends, the Geriatric Heathers, as Chris called them. Three hard-faced old crones who all dressed in stiff-shouldered suits. The Heathers sipped their G&T’s and asked Moira patronisingly if she was ever going to get married.
Moira scanned the room for her father or Chris, neither of which appeared to be here.
“Moira, darling, have you met your Father’s girlfriend?” Aunt Penelope asked, taking her by the arm. “Oh dear me, it does feel strange talking about my little brother having a girlfriend after all these years. Oh my. Anyway I’ll leave you to catch up-!”
She had started to attempt to ask where her father was, but Aunt Penelope had sauntered off to get another sherry before the words were out of her mouth. Moira smiled awkwardly at the young woman opposite her.
“Hello, I’m Moira, I don’t think we’ve-,” she said, at the exact same time her new party companion said her own name. Both of them stopped speaking abruptly, slightly red-faced.
Her father’s new, very young girlfriend laughed nervously. “Oops, erm, do you want a drink?”
A massive wine would make this less awkward. She’d held off meeting her for three months now, though she’d known today would likely be the day that she did. She was only two years older than Moira; they could’ve been in school together. In person she looked younger than her. Bouncy brown curls, warm eyes. Her father’s much, much younger girlfriend, whose name Moira had unfortunately forgotten and now misheard. Father always referred to her as Richards, but surely it wouldn’t be appropriate for her to do the same?
What was her damn name?
“So, erm, the wine is nice,” Moira said.
“Yes, it is,” Dad’s girlfriend said.
What was her name? It began with a T. She was sure it began with a ‘T’. Jacob had made a joke, Teenage Tegan, or Tara…
“We actually met once before,” Teenage Teri said, “You came to the firm once, a year or two ago? For your dad’s birthday.”
“Oh,” Moira said. “Yes, I think I remember.”
For the first woman her Dad had introduced her to after her mother’s nervous breakdown, this wasn’t completely terrible. At least she seemed nice. It was just a bit embarrassing, like Dad was having a mid-life crisis and nobody would discuss it. Surely, surely, he could see how it looked dating a woman young enough to be his daughter? And her, Teenage Tiffany or Taylor or something, she couldn’t actually be attracted to Moira’s fifty-seven-year-old father, could she?
“Erm, so, does your family do this every year?” Teenage Tonya asked.
“Yes,” Moira said. “I’m a veteran at this.”
“It’s lovely,” she said. “My family doesn’t really do anything like this. Like, my Grandma sometimes tries to get us to go for a walk, but everyone is usually too hungover.” She laughed nervously and took another big sip of wine. “Sorry, I’m babbling. I’m a bit out of my comfort zone.”
“It’s fine, you know,” Moira said. “So, erm, how long have you worked with my Dad?”
She winced, instantly regretting asking this as the poor woman went bright red in the face, and she started babbling very quickly about an internship that turned into a job. Fortunately, both of them were rescued by Dad.
“Ah, Moira,” he said, materialising at Teenage Tabitha’s side. “Penny said you arrived.”
“Dad, it’s good to see you.”
He bent down to peck her on the cheek. That practiced smile, the one he wore in court. Moira had never seen him with another kind.
“I see you’ve met Natasha.”
“Tasha, please, call me Tasha.”
“Yes, of course, I remembered,” she said. “Yes, it’s been lovely getting a chance to meet properly. Dad, is… Chris with you?”
Tasha’s smile faltered and her Dad’s brow knitted together. He muttered something under his breath about Chris needing a lie down after the long journey. Moira imagined her brother was locked in one of the bedrooms upstairs.
“Anyhow, is work going well?” Dad asked gruffly.
“Oh, yes, I’ve been busy. My supervisor and I are taking the students on a trip to Germany next semester for conference.”
“How exciting,” he said. “Say, did you ever have a chance to look up Martin Jones? He was recently made Head of the Humanities, you know.”
Moira preemptively poured herself another glass. “To be honest, the departments don’t mingle too much. Humanities and Economics, well, you can imagine.”
“Are you talking about dear Marty?” Aunt Penelope said. “Oh, Moira, you should’ve asked him along. You are colleagues.”
“I don’t know him,” Moira said.
Tasha laughed uncomfortably. “Plus, a family gathering is a bit of an intense first date.”
Dad laughed and wrapped an arm around Tasha’s shoulders. “You’re quite right, of course, my dear.”
“Still,” Aunt Penelope said, swishing her drink around the glass. “It’d make me and your Daddy feel a lot better if you were more settled, Moira. I swear, Natasha, this one is hopeless with boyfriends. We’ve suggested all sorts, I don’t know what she does to chase them off.”
Moira felt her face burning.
“Well, you’re doing your PhD, aren’t you, Moira,” Tasha said, “You’re probably a bit busy to be Tinder-hopping.”
“Yeah,” she said, painfully grateful for the back-up. “Yeah, right.”
“We just worry,” Aunt Penelope said.
“Of course we do. I don’t have to worry about the boys. Chris has his head screwed on tight-” A little teenage basket case, Moira thought. “And my older boy, Jacob, is Mr. Practical.”
“He’s in the office now, on Boxing Day, poor lamb.”
He’s at a bar, she thought.
“But,” he continued, “Moira can be flighty, she takes after her mother. Needs someone to take care of her. It makes me worry.”
“Come now, Moira, is there really nobody at work?” Aunt Penelope probed.
“No,” Moira said bluntly. “I’d never date a colleague.”
In the crowded lobby after the ceremony, free wine passed around the gaggle of graduates and their parents. Moira watched Gretchen arguing with her mum about filters as they posed for selfies. Father had spotted an associate he knew from work, ‘Gerry, you must remember Gerry’ – the father of a silent, scowling boy Moira vaguely recognised from a Finance seminar in second year. He’d come to class stinking of weed and hadn’t done his bit on their group project. He either didn’t remember or just really didn’t want to talk to her, as the two of them had been stood like sentinels while their fathers talked shop.
“My boy is interning at my firm this summer,” Gerry said.
“Good luck to you, young man,” Dad said.
“How about you, young lady?” Gerry asked.
“I’m starting my Masters here in September,” Moira said.
“Oh, how impressive,” he said, smiling with too many teeth. “Career girls like you are so remarkable. More than a pretty face, eh, Lancaster?”
“Why are we so remarkable?” Moira asked.
The smile faltered.
“Moira,” Dad muttered under his breath.
“Why? Nobody finds it remarkable that Brian is working at the firm this summer. Surely that’s more ‘career’ than me, who’s still going to be a student next year.”
Brian was staring at her with his mouth open. His father laughed nervously and nudged her father. “I see she’s a spitfire like her mother.”
“Oh fuck off,” Moira said.
She felt her father’s hand around her arm, dragging her away from Father and Son who were staring at her with the same goggle-eyed expression. Moira felt the ground come up and swallow her as he dragged her into an empty classroom and shut the door behind them.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
The slap sent her glasses clattering to the floor. It made her eyes water and Moira pulled both hands up to protect her face.
“What the hell are you playing at?” he said. “This isn’t how you were brought up.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said again. Her voice came out strained, like she was speaking from under water, down so deep and so far.
“It’s not good enough. She acted this way, you know, like an animal. Keep your nasty little comments to yourself.” He handed her a handkerchief and her glasses. “And fix your face, for goodness sake.”
Moira’s hands were shaking as she stepped back outside, stumbling in her heels as she walked to the ladies toilets on this floor. She passed Gretchen and one of her little sisters on the way. Gretchen reached for her, opening her mouth to speak and then stopping, frozen as she saw Moira’s swollen cheek and red, red eyes.
“I’m fine,” Moira said in a bright cheerful voice that wasn’t her own. “I’ll see you later. Celebratory margaritas, yeah?”
Behind her she could hear her father talking to Gerry, apologising.
“My daughter has had too much to drink. Nerves for the big day.”
“Oh, no harm done, old man.”
“I’m sorry,” Moira said, “I didn’t mean it like that-!”
“Will you excuse me, love?” Dad said to Tasha, who’d gone pink. He passed over and took Moira by the forearm, leading her forcefully out into the kitchen.
“I’m sorry,” she tried again. “I really didn’t mean-!”
“I suppose you think you’re funny.”
“No,” she said. She was nine years old again. Tearful over a bad school report, told off for playing too noisily, holding her cutlery wrong. “I know how that must have sounded but I really didn’t mean-”
“You know, at least your brother is direct,” he said. “At this point I expect this sort of thing from Chris. He’s a child. But you keep quiet and play nice and then dish out your nasty little comments. I don’t know why I keep expecting better from you, Moira. You’re just like your mother. She liked hurting people too.”
“I said I’m sorry!” she shouted. “You never let me apologise. I really didn’t mean to offend you. But you need to stop comparing me to her, I’m nothing like her.”
“Lower your voice! We’re in public.”
“Let go of my arm!”
He sighed, releasing her. “Your mother wasn’t a well woman. And you are this close to turning out the same way.”
“I’ve said sorry and as usual that’s not enough for you.” She rubbed her arm, which already stung like a bruise. “I’m going back to the others.”
“You hold it, missy. I’m not finished speaking to you.”
“Well that’s too bad,” she said, her voice trembling.
He reached out and grabbed her wrist, squeezing so tightly she felt her bones creak like branches in the wind.
“Don’t touch me-!”
“Not until you calm down.”
Her hand moved before she fully registered, her palm colliding hard against his cheek. Moira jumped back like he’d burned her. He staggered back. For a moment, neither of them moved.
“You keep your goddamn hands off me,” she said, her heart ringing in her ears. “You don’t get to do that. I’m not my mum and I won’t stand for it.”
As she turned towards the door, she heard him call after her, demanding that she apologise. But she kept walking, through the party of sherry-sweating old men and the Geriatric Heathers, and out towards the front door.