Read an extract from Carmel Harrington's uplifting new novel My Pear-Shaped Life
Read an extract from Carmel Harrington's uplifting new novel My Pear-Shaped Life.
Greta Gale has played the part of the funny fat one her entire life, hiding her insecurities behind a big smile. But size doesn’t matter when you can laugh at yourself, right?
Until Greta realises she’s the only one not laughing. And deep down, she’s not sure if she’ll ever laugh again.
But Greta is about to discover that sometimes the best moments in life come when it’s all gone a bit pear-shaped…
Greta walked into the kitchen rubbing her eyes. She smiled her thanks to her mam, Emily, who placed a mug of dark brown tea in front of her. The Gales all drank their tea the same way – brewed or, as some might say, stewed.
‘Sleep OK?’ Emily asked. ‘Like a baby,’ Greta replied.
‘You didn’t take any more of those sleeping pills, did you?’ Emily’s forehead wrinkled in a frown.
‘Give over, Mam. I only take the odd one when my insomnia gets out of hand. I keep telling you that,’ Greta said. Her mother worried way too much. Greta had taken one the previous evening, as it happened, but there was no point worrying her mam admitting that. When it came to her parents, some things were better on a ‘need to know’ basis.
Greta opened her phone and flicked through Instagram. ‘Oh Mam look—’ Greta began, but was silenced with a shush and a wave at the TV screen. Eamonn Holmes, one of the anchors of her mam’s favourite TV show This Morning was speaking. Emily always denied that she had a crush on him, but when he spoke her face softened, and she hung onhis every word.
Only when Eamonn had finished talking did Emily answer, ‘What’s that love?’
Greta pointed to a photograph of Dr Greta Gale, her famous namesake.
In the photo, Dr Gale was sitting on a red-brick wall, with the backdrop of a green ocean behind her, smiling to the camera. ‘Doesn’t she look beautiful?’
‘How does she get her hair to look like that?’ Emily asked, smoothing down her own shoulder-length bob. ‘Maybe I should grow mine out a bit.’
‘She probably has a glam squad at her disposal twenty- four/seven,’ Greta replied. ‘What do you think she means by being the same personally as well as privately and publicly?
Emily put her glasses on to read the post beneath the photograph. ‘I don’t know. Half the stuff she posts is a load ofmumbo jumbo if you ask me.’
‘Mam!’ Greta loved Dr Gale and wouldn’t have a word said against her. And that wasn’t just because they shared the same name – although that was part of it. It was more because Dr Gale epitomized everything that Greta wished she could be herself. Dr Gale was successful, beautiful and loved. She was living her best life. She represented hope for Greta. Maybe one day she too could have everything that Dr Gale had. There wasn’t a single Instagram post that Greta had not read. And with each new double tap of love, she felt her connection to her grow stronger.
Greta would lie in bed, late at night, knowing she should be at least making an attempt to sleep, but somehow unable to take her eyes off Dr Gale’s Instafeed. She would lose hours googling books, food, art and restaurants that Dr Gale tagged in a photo. She followed accounts that Dr Gale followed. Last year she bought a green kaftan similar to the one that Dr Gale wore to a beach party, but that had not ended well. On Dr Gale the kaftan looked very boho chic. On Greta it looked as if she’d eaten all the pies.
More than how Dr Gale looked, lately her Instagram posts felt as if they were speaking directly to Greta. Every word seemed like a secret message just for her, as if Dr Gale had looked into Greta’s mind and knew exactly what to say to help her, support her, advise her.
While her mam’s back was turned, Greta picked up the remote control and hit the Netflix button, pressing play on the one-hour Dr Greta Gale Special, ‘What’s In Your Cupboard?’
‘Not again,’ Emily groaned.
‘What?’ Greta feigned innocence. ‘You like her as much as me. And I love this bit. Look at that strut.’
They both watched Dr Gale sashaying onto a stage, the spotlight following her as she walked. ‘Hello y’all.’
‘Hello y’all,’ Greta and Emily called back to the screen in their best copycat US accent.
‘When I grew up in Kansas, on a little old bitty farm, I could never have dreamed that one day I’d be standing here in front of y’all. A New York Times bestseller, translated into thirty-three languages – so far – with my own TV special. I’m not sharing that to brag, but to illustrate how life is full of surprises. You never know what is around your corner for you. Am I right? Can I get a hell yeah!’
‘Hell yeah!’ Greta and Emily called back.
‘I’d love to know where she got that dress. I’ve got your second cousin Breda’s confirmation coming up in April. I’d take the sight out of their eyes if I walked into the church in that.’
‘It’s Diane von Fürstenberg. $1,800. Sorry, Mam. But guess what? Dr Greta has announced her first-ever live one-day seminar in Las Vegas. Wouldn’t it be something else to go and see her there?’ She felt a frisson of excitement at the very thought.
Emily muttered something about notions and out- rageous airfares under her breath then went back to making a pot of porridge. A loud bang from upstairs ricocheted down the stairs into the kitchen. Emily and Greta raised their eyes upwards. The boys were up.
‘Wait till I get hold of those . . . those two bowsies!’ Emily said. Bowsie was Emily’s favourite slang for her two sons whenever they were being unruly.
Greta slipped into actress mode and raised a perfectly arched eyebrow in question, a move she had been practising for weeks. She had a big audition later today in London and she planned to end her prepared monologue with this facial expression. Emily sighed as only a mother who had the full weight of her irresponsible boys on her shoulders could. She pointed to the grill. ‘It was left on all night. We could have burned to a crisp, the whole house up like a light.’ She blessed herself quickly, muttering thanks to St Anthony, her saint of choice for keeping them safe.
Greta felt a shiver of something ripple through her. Staring at the grill, she imagined flames bursting from its dark cave, filling the kitchen, sneaking up the stairs to the sleeping family.
‘Did they wake you up with all their drunken shenanigans last night?’ Emily asked.
‘No. I slept like a log,’ Greta replied, focusing on her phone.
‘Ah, good girl,’ Emily said. ‘Did you . . .’
Her question hung unasked because Aidan and Ciaran bounced into the room, seconds apart. Greta marvelled that she was related to them at all. She never bounced anywhere. Unless you counted every evening when she took her bra off . . .
Greta had been nine years old when Aidan had been born, with Ciaran following on a mere ten months later. Irish twins, as the saying went. She loved them and the feeling was mutual. They would sit in their high chairs, captivated by their big sister who sang and danced for them both, making them squeal with delight.
‘I’m starving, Mam!’ Aidan said, throwing an arm around his mother’s shoulder. ‘Any chance of a bacon sandwich?’
‘Same. Make that two!’ Ciaran said, pouring two mugs of tea.
‘Sit down,’ Emily said to them, smiling. ‘I’ve already made your breakfast. The full Irish.’
‘You da best,’ Aidan said, a loud rumble escaping his stomach. ‘Big G in da house.’
He took a seat opposite Greta at the table and saluted her. Aidan had given her the nickname ‘G’ when he was a toddler and couldn’t get his tongue around Greta. And as is often the way with childhood nicknames, the name somehow stuck. Ciaran amended it to Big G a few years later. He said it made her sound like a rapper. That used to make Greta laugh. She would put a baseball cap on sideways, throw on a load of her mam’s costume jewellery and do a mean Jay-Z impression. It always ended with all three of them collapsed into a big pile of giggling.
Big G in da house.
With the emphasis on the word big.
They watched Emily as she opened the grill and loaded two plates with an imaginary fry. Ciaran whispered to Greta, ‘Is Mam all right?’
Greta looked away, unable to watch the drama about to unfold. Never mind the grill going on fire, her brothers were about to get roasted.
‘There you go,’ Emily said, as she placed an empty plate in front of Aidan, and then another in front of Ciaran. ‘Enjoy that now.’
‘But there’s nothing there,’ Ciaran said. ‘Is there no fry then? What about a bacon sandwich?’
Emily sat down beside Greta. ‘Sure how could I make you a sandwich when I’ve not got a single slice of bread left.’
‘Ah Mam,’ Aidan complained. ‘You had me looking forward to a fry.’
‘Don’t you be ah Mam-ing me! It’s a wonder we’re not all dead the way you left this place last night.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Aidan asked.
‘I’ll tell you what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that I got up this morning to the smell of smoke. Black fecking smoke, coming from the kitchen. The grill was left on, all night. What have you to say for your- selves?’
‘Don’t be looking at me,’ Ciaran said. ‘I went straight to bed when I got in.’
‘So did I,’ Aidan replied. ‘I never even came into the kitchen! I got a spice bag in the chipper on the way home.’
‘A likely story. Do you think I came down in the last shower?’ Emily said. ‘The butter left open. And the bread gone. Do you think I’m made of money or something? That’s the drink for you. You’re drowning all your brain cells in Guinness, you can’t even remember when you are up to devilment.’
‘We don’t remember ’cos we didn’t do anything. Who says it was us, anyhow? What about Dad or Big G?’ Aidan’s face flushed red with indignation.
‘Don’t be pulling your sister into this; sure she was up in bed fast asleep while you two were out carousing. As for your father, you know he doesn’t eat white bread – he’d as soon cut off his arm.’
On cue, they heard the key in the front door, and their father, Stephen, walked in, red and sweating. He looked at his Apple Watch and clicked a few buttons, nodding in satisfaction at the result. ‘That’s thirty-eight point three kilometres done so far this month. And it’s only a few days into February!’
‘Well done love,’ Emily said.
‘Dad, did you leave the grill on before you went out for your run?’ Aidan asked.
‘Indeed I did not. I haven’t had any bread in months, as well you know. Except for my porridge loaf that I make myself.’ He patted his flat stomach as he spoke, a habit he’d formed at the same time his keep fit passion had ignited.
‘Well if it wasn’t Dad and it wasn’t Ciaran or me, who does that leave?’ Aidan said, glaring at Greta.
‘Well, bring out the Bible then, Mam,’ Greta remarked, hoping to lighten the mood, making Ciaran snigger. When they were kids, one of them drew all over the kitchen door in crayon. Aidan, Ciaran and Greta denied the crime, despite Emily’s best efforts to uncover the culprit. So her interrogation progressed to threatening them all with the wooden spoon – which failed – and escalated to the family Bible. Each of them was made to swear on their innocence, the threat of eternal damnation laid out before them. The Bible won and Ciaran sang like a canary. Now ‘Bring out the Bible’ was a tried-and-tested Gale catchphrase that was part of their family’s folklore.
‘Maybe I should,’ Emily said, but the corners of her mouth began to twitch too and soon she was smiling herself.
Greta sloped out of the room, happy that she’d managed to diffuse the tension as always. She hated seeing her family at odds with each other. Always had. Which was why it was Big G’s role to make everyone laugh. The family joker, her Uncle Ray often said. But sometimes she wondered if they were laughing with her . . . or at her? It was time she got ready for her trip to London anyhow.
Her audition later today was for a part in a new drama series. It could be life changing for her. Ever since she had starred in a Christmas ad when she was little, she knew the bright lights of stardom beckoned for her. She show- ered and dressed, then packed her overnight bag, making sure she had everything. Actors’ portfolio, make-up bag, deodorant, her tablets. Check! Satisfied that all was in order, she made her way to the kitchen to say goodbye to her folks. Aidan passed her on the stairs, but as he did, he gave her shoulder a hard shove.
‘Hey! Watch it. What did I do?’ she asked to his retreating back. That had been deliberate and it hurt.
His response was to glower at her and mutter something under his breath, before slamming the door to his bedroom.
‘Charming!’ she shouted after him.
Both her parents were eating porridge and drinking more tea when she went back into the kitchen. ‘Want some, G?’ Emily asked, pointing to the pot behind her.
Greta shook her head. ‘I’ll grab something to eat in the airport.’
‘I’ve had a bowl of porridge every morning since I was a toddler,’ Stephen said. He patted his nonexistent stomach againand continued, ‘No cholesterol and my digestion is in prime condition. If you want my advice, G, you could do a lot worse than following the lead of your mother and me on this matter.’
‘Sure, Dad. I’ll get some later,’ Greta replied. ‘I need to get going, though. I don’t want to be late for Uncle Ray, especially when he’s kind enough to give me a lift.’
‘I offered to take you to the airport,’ Stephen said, a slight edge to his voice.
‘I know you did. I appreciate it.’
‘Sometimes I think you prefer him to me,’ Stephen griped. And although Greta made the appropriate denial noises, there was an element of truth in his words.
Greta had a special bond with her Uncle Ray, her dad’s brother, which she supposed was inevitable considering how he’d had to become a makeshift midwife to deliver her. Emily went into labour early at home. Stephen was on nights, so Ray was called to bring her to the hospital. They never made it there in the end. Ray had delivered Greta on the sitting-room floor, while they were waiting for the paramedics to arrive and he was trying not to pass out from the sight of blood. The story went that Greta had looked into Ray’s eyes when she slipped into his hands and an unbreakable connection was made.
Emily looked up at the clock. ‘You’re way too early to go to the airport. Your flight isn’t for hours. Tell you what, why don’t you come with me to my slimming class? The ladies are such a nice bunch. They’d all love to meet you. And then I’ll drop you to Ray’s on the way back home.’
This suggestion was met with great enthusiasm from Stephen, who began to congratulate Emily on her ingenuity to think it up. Greta knew a set-up when she saw one.
‘Maybe next time,’ Greta said, knowing that hell would freeze over before she’d ever go to a slimming class with her mother. ‘I need the extra time to practise my lines for the audition.’
Stephen exhaled a loud, disgruntled sigh of annoyance. Greta was used to this particular sound. In fact, if she had to equate one sound with her father when he was in her presence, it would be this one.
‘When I was your age. . .’ he began, which meant that another of his fun ‘lose weight and keep fit’ pep talks was about to start. Before anotherword flew out of his mouth, Greta ran out through the front door, shouting goodbyes over her shoulder.
As Greta pounded the footpath towards her Uncle Ray’s house, pulling her cabin bag behind her, she fantasized about having enough money to move out. Her mam she could take, but her dad was relentless in his quest to make her thinner.She was exhausted from dodging his lectures. Greta slowed down at the end of their road, already out of breath, and took a seat on the edge of a garden wall. She pulled a bag of Maltesers from her handbag and threw a handful into her mouth. As the chocolate melted and the malty inside fizzed on her tongue, she sighed with contentment.
‘Hey!’ Greta squealed in shock when she felt something brush against her leg. She looked down, praying it wasn’t a cat – she hated cats – and saw a dirty black scrappy dog staring up at her. The dog barked, then sat in front of her, eyesbegging for a chocolate.
‘No can do, little doggie. These are bad for you.’ Then Greta began to giggle as she realized what she was saying. ‘I know, “pot kettle black” and all the rest. But I need these.’ She threw another handful in her mouth. He nuzzled her ankle with his nose.
‘I can’t,’ Greta said. ‘Chocolate is bad for dogs, honestly.’ She opened her bag and searched for something she could share with him. Bingo! She pulled out a half-eaten rice cake. ‘It tastes like cardboard, just warning you.’
The mutt didn’t care and wolfed it down in one bite before he moved closer and gave her another nuzzle. Poor thing was hungry. Greta hadn’t seen him before. Maybe the family who had moved into number 9 the previous month owned him.
‘Go on home, boy,’ she said. ‘I’ve got to go now.’ He ignored her and followed her as she turned the corner into Ray’s road. Greta stopped once more and said firmly, ‘You can’t come with me, little man. You have to stay here. Go back to your owners.’ He cocked his head to one side and she could have sworn she saw tears in his black eyes. She recognized something in that look. He was lost. Alone. Shrugging it off, she turned and walked away.
As Greta got close to her uncle’s house, she spotted Ray wheeling in bins down neighbours’ drives.
‘What are you doing?’ Greta shouted out.
‘The bin man has been. And I’m not working today. So I thought I’d save some of the neighbours a job when they get home tonight. Nice to be nice. Speaking of which, you look lovely.’
She did a little curtsey, delighted with the compliment. She felt good in her new dress.
Greta told Ray about the dog she’d made friends with, worried that the little thing couldn’t find his way home again, wherever that was.
‘He could be a stray. Don’t fret, I’ll keep my eye open for him when I get back from the airport,’ Ray said, kind as always.
And Greta felt herself relax, as she always did in his company.
‘Why were you eating Maltesers for breakfast anyhow?’ Ray asked when they had moved inside and gone into the kitchen. He was putting two slices of thick white bread into the toaster. He flicked the switch on the kettle, to make a pot oftea.
‘Because dad wanted me to eat porridge.’
‘Pushing that red button again,’ Ray said, knowing his niece better than anyone. Greta had always been the same, ever since she had been a little girl. Tell her not to do something and you could be guaranteed she’d feel compelled to do that very thing.
‘Guilty. But they make me so stressed sometimes. Mam was going on about her slimming class. You know what she’s like when she starts talking about that.’
‘I know. But Emily is looking great, though. Didn’t she get her one-stone badge or something last week?’
‘Yes she is and yes she did. But it’s not in me to go to a slimming class with my mother. I couldn’t bear it, Uncle Ray.’
‘Kerrygold butter or the low-fat stuff?’ Ray asked, when the toaster popped.
Greta had spent the previous two weeks eating next to nothing, in an effort to slim down for her audition.
‘Hit me with the real stuff,’ Greta decided. She’d not managed to lose anything despite her best efforts. So, she figured, what was the actual point?
Ray made no comment. He was used to her on/off dieting whims, so tended to have all options covered when Gretacalled in to see him.
‘Your mam and dad only have your best interests at heart,’ Ray said, as he smeared toast with butter and jam.
‘I know. But there’s something in my genetic make-up that makes me not listen to authority. Teachers, work, Mam, Dad . . . I’m a lost cause.’ She looked at her slice of hot toast, which had melted the Kerrygold into a golden syrup that seeped into the crunchy bread. ‘I swore to myself that me and butter were breaking up. But as soon as I did that, I started to have dreamsabout it. On spuds. On baguettes. On brown soda bread. On crackers with cheese. On toast.’ She groaned as she took abite.
‘It’s the “forbidden fruit tasting so much sweeter” scenario,’ Uncle Ray said. ‘So maybe, rather than denying yourself something altogether, you should eat the butter. But cut down the amount you have.’
‘Maybe,’ Greta replied, finishing her tea. ‘Only problem with that is, I don’t know when to stop! I have to be the only person who ever did the Atkins diet and put on weight when they cut out carbs. I was having butter on my cream, on my cheese, on my rib-eye steak.’
‘Now you’re making me hungry. We better make a move though. Can’t have you missing this flight. Are you sure you’ve got everything? Passport, toothbrush, money.’
‘Sir, yes, sir.’ Greta saluted him.
Twenty minutes later, he pulled into a space in the drop-down area of Dublin Airport.
Greta glanced up at the entrance to Terminal Two, which was several hundred feet away. Uncle Ray always seemed to go out of his way to park as far away from his destination as possible. ‘I think there’s a space out in Swords village that might be closer,’ Greta teased.
‘This is grand. Sure it’s not raining,’ Ray replied, switching the engine off. Ray knew the value of a large parking spot when he saw one. He’d been listening to his family slag off his parking skills for decades. The joke was on them, though: he’d managed to get through over twenty years of driving without a single dint or dang.
‘Thanks for the lift, Uncle Ray, you’re the best.’
‘My pleasure. Good luck with the audition. I’ve everything crossed for you. And don’t waste the chance for a great adventure by staying cooped up in your hotel room. Go see the sights. Madame Tussauds or the London Eye – whatever it is that you young’uns are into these days.’
‘The greatest adventure is what lies next on my Netflix list.’ Greta spoke with great solemnity, making Ray laugh, as she intended.
‘Don’t waste the pretty, Greta.’
‘Eh?’ Greta asked.
‘You’re young and beautiful with the whole world at your feet. Don’t let it pass you by. Don’t waste the pretty.’ Gretamock-saluted him, but felt a lump in her throat all the same. Is that what she was doing? Ray kissed her on her forehead, the way he always did, waving her goodbye as she made her way inside the airport.
As she queued at security, Greta ran through her lines for the hundredth time. The role of Clara, the chubby best friend to the female lead in a new psychological thriller series, was one she wanted with every fibre of herself. If she got this role, she knew it would be the start of something new.
Dr Gale often spoke about corners and how you never knew when it wasyour moment to turn a new one. This could be hers. She didn’t think she could bear another season of playing multiple mind-numbing roles with the Murder Mystery Crew. She’d worked part time for the Murder Mystery Crew for two years; they stagedvarious whodunnit plays for hen and stag parties, and performed at the odd corporate event. While they also did the occasional private gig, most of their shows were in Grayson Castle, Wexford, at weekends.
One good thing about the job, though, was that she got to spend a couple of days each week in a hotel room, away from the madness of her family. It also paid the bills while she waited for her big break, and she got to spend time with Dylan, her best friend.
Talk of the devil . . . She grabbed her phone when it beeped.
- My Pear-Shaped Life by Carmel Harrington, published by Harper Collins, is available now.