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  • Published: 31 May 2022
  • ISBN: 9781761045004
  • Imprint: Bantam Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $32.99

The Making of Her

A New York Post Best Book of 2022


Chapter 1 - Dublin 1996

The day started early. Joan had been up for hours. The roast was done, and the cake was cooling on the kitchen counter. One of the sponges had cracked when she was turning it out of the baking tin. Nothing a bit of buttercream wouldn’t cover. Even though it was only the four of them for lunch, she was determined that Carmel would have a good birthday.

Joan eyed the kitchen clock. She should probably make the effort and go upstairs to change her blouse before Carmel arrived. She got as far as the first stair before Molly called out to her.

“Where are you going now?”

Joan thought about pretending she hadn’t heard, but there was no use giving her mother-in-law something else to complain about, so she went and stood in the parlour doorway. “I thought I’d make myself presentable now the bulk of the cooking is done.”

Molly patted the back of her freshly washed and set hair and gave her a withering look. “Well, don’t be long.”

Let it go, Joan thought, as she headed for the stairs, fists clenched at her sides. Let it go.

Back in the kitchen she put on a new apron over her clean blouse. Through the open kitchen window she heard Martin outside in the garden. He was humming to himself. Joan couldn’t make out the tune but could tell he was in good form. The weather probably had something to do with it. You could never take a fine weekend for granted, Irish summers being as unreliable as they were. Today the forecast was for sunny intervals. They would eat outside—make more of an occasion of it. New potatoes. Cold roast beef. Linen napkins. The works.

Behind her, Martin stamped his feet on the mat by the backdoor. She didn’t turn from the sink to greet him. She would havedone, once. Not anymore.

“That’s the patio chairs laid out. We’re all set, apart from the wine.”

Joan concentrated on the wooden spoon she was scrubbing under scalding water. He was waiting for her to say something. Let him wait.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to be like this all day, Joan.”

“Like what?” she said, lifting her head to stare at the fuchsia flowering in the side garden through the window.

“Like a long streak of misery,” Martin said. “Like someone getting ready for a funeral, not like a mother about to celebrate her only daughter’s birthday.”

Joan’s shoulders stiffened. She spun to face him, gripping the spoon in her fist. Judging by the look of remorse on his face, he knew he’d slipped up. “That’s just it, though,” she said. “She’s not my only daughter, is she?”

Martin came closer. “Keep your voice down,” he whispered. “Mother’s in the front parlour.”

Joan shook her head and gripped the spoon harder. As if she wasn’t well aware of Molly Egan’s exact whereabouts every minute of the day and night. “I’m tired, Martin. Tired of keeping quiet for the sake of what other people will think.”

Martin stood beside her and reached across to turn off the tap. “I thought we agreed there was no sense in dragging this up year in, year out.”

“Did we now?” Joan said, failing to hide her irritation. Her husband’s needless reminders to keep their secret safe grated on her more and more as the years passed. She supposed he had a point, though. What would it all have been for if word got out now?

“Why can’t we leave the past where it belongs?” Martin said. “What’s the use of dwelling on something that’s behind us?”

“She turned thirty this year, you know.” Her voice wavered, as though tears might come. “You might have forgotten her, Martin. But I haven’t.”

He couldn’t look at her. “Ah, come on. Now isn’t the time. Carmel will be here any minute.” He paused, gauging the mood. “For Carmel’s sake.” His tone was gentler now.

“For Carmel?” Joan’s eyes narrowed as she searched his. Those piercing blue eyes she had fallen for long ago.

“Yes, that’s it. For Carmel,” he repeated, resting his hand on her shoulder.

She nodded. He had a point. Spoiling Carmel’s party wouldn’t change anything.

“Come on. Let’s just enjoy the day, eh?” he said, giving her shoulder a small squeeze. He waited. He knew her well enough to do that much at least.

She turned back to the sink, dropping the spoon into the basin of dirty water. “You’re right. Now isn’t the time. And this birthday cake won’t ice itself, will it?” she said, forcing half a smile.

Martin exhaled. “Exactly! Right, I’ll just nip down to the shops and leave you to finish up.” He patted his trouser pockets, and loose change rattled against his thighs. “Have you seen my keys?”

“Over by the phone where you left them.”

“That’s right.” He tutted and smiled. “I won’t be long,” he called over his shoulder as he left the room. The front door slammed in a light breeze behind him.

Joan opened the utensil drawer to look for the palette knife before turning her attention to the cake on the table. It was Carmel’s day—definitely not the time for regrets. She dipped the palette knife into the chocolate buttercream, Carmel’s favourite, and smoothed it onto the sponge in sure, swift strokes. What kind of mother would ruin her daughter’s birthday by raking up the past?

Joan sighed. What kind of mother was she? That question had haunted her day and night for years. Carmel wanted for nothing, Joan consoled herself. She never had to worry about having enough food in her belly, money for schoolbooks, or a job that was made for her. Joan was glad of that.

She shouldn’t have been surprised that her daughter settled for working in the family business—it was all she had known. Martin made sure of it. There were so many paths she could have chosen. Opportunities galore for girls these days. If Mary Robinson could be the Irish president, there was nothing to stop the young ones doing whatever they wanted. It was as if the country had only woken up to the fact that half the population were women with minds of their own.

She stood back to admire her handiwork. “That’ll do,” she said, running her finger along the blade of the palette knife, licking off the last of the buttercream. You’d never know the sponge wasn’t perfect underneath.

“Joan!” Molly called from the parlour.

She didn’t answer immediately.

“It’s half twelve,” her mother-in-law shouted.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Joan called back, running hot water into the icing bowl.

She took her time walking up the hall. “Yes, Molly?” she said, standing with one hand on the doorjamb. “What is it?”

Molly shifted in her chair by the bay window. Her lookout post, as Joan called it. “There you are. Are you not finished with the cake yet? Carmel will be here shortly.”

Joan consciously relaxed her shoulders by inhaling and exhaling deeply, in through her nose and out through her mouth. Something she learned only recently to do. She’d read about it in a Woman’s Weekly article for career women about combating stress. “I’m just doing the washing up. And I’m sure you’ll keep Carmel entertained when she gets here.”

Molly folded her arms across her chest and pursed her lips. “Well, I’m only saying it would be better if everything wasn’t left till the last minute.”

“Then the sooner I get back to the kitchen the better,” Joan said, turning without waiting for a response. She didn’t trust herself to say another word.


Chapter 2

Sometimes Carmel wondered why she stayed in Dublin. Or maybe, to be more accurate, why she’d never left. Now, here she was, at the “something and nothing” age of twenty-seven, alone in her flat, reluctantly getting ready to head out to a family gathering in her honour.

She stepped under the warm spray of the shower. The truth was, she had no time for birthdays, especially her own. She was far too pragmatic to enjoy the fuss people made of the occasion—a day that, if everyone was honest, didn’t belong to her. All the bother wasn’t for her. It was for her father and mother, and mostly for her grandmother, who life had dealt the unfortunate blow of a solitary son and then, to top it off, just one grandchild.

It was only natural they would want to pull out all the stops for her. She was all they had: their one and only. She turned the water off and dried quickly before wrapping herself in the towel. Shaking her wet hair loose, she towelled strands of it between her palms as she walked barefoot from the bathroom to the bedroom. She stood in front of the open wardrobe and flicked through the hangers, hunting for something suitable to wear to a birthday lunch other than the mostly blue jeans and black jumpers she always wore.

Surely there were times, she thought, as a kid, when she enjoyed being the centre of attention—the cake, the presents, the fuss? No, she couldn’t recall them. What she had been aware of, for as long as she could remember, was the need to be happy for the sake of the grown-ups. Mind you, nothing to that effect was ever said outright. It didn’t have to be spoken aloud to be true. The weight of their expectations bore down on her.

Granny would like nothing better than to see her married and settled before she died—which could be any day now, as she kept reminding them. Carmel wondered whether it would be worse in Granny’s eyes if she hooked up with a “waster” who was just after her money or, God forbid, she ended up a spinster. Left on the shelf like poor Miss Hannigan, Lord rest her soul, who’d had to content herself with teaching other people’s children instead of having a family of her own.

Dad was happy as long as nothing changed and she continued on as his “right- hand girl”. Nothing would please him more than Carmel working in the family business until the end of her days. And her mother? Well, she was a mystery. Who knew what Mam wanted—for herself, let alone for Carmel.

If Carmel smiled, Granny was in good form, or was a little less irritable with Mam. When Granny was more civil to Mam, her mother and father got along better. It was like a domino effect. Carmel had no idea when and why she’d become the first domino to fall. All she knew was she’d played this part in the family saga for as long as she could remember. Lately, it had begun to dawn on her that this role wasn’t one she’d chosen. It had just fallen to her.

Behind their birthday-party smiles, though, there was always an undercurrent of sadness. Her birthdays were less a celebration of her life and more akin to a wake for what might have been: the brothers and sisters her mother never had because of “complications” after Carmel was born. The family didn’t talk about Mam’s “women’s troubles”. They didn’t have to.

It was a crying shame, people around Harold’s Cross gossiped, that Martin and Joan Egan had just the one. And them loaded with money, rattling around their big house on Grove Square. It just went to show money couldn’t buy you everything.

The front door slamming shut downstairs drew Carmel to the window. She pulled back the net curtain a crack, just enough to see Lina, the medical student who lived in the basement flat, unlocking her bicycle from the railings. She was here alone, a long way from her family in Malaysia, but still making a go of things.

Carmel dropped the curtain, ducking back into the shadows out of sight, and watched through the nets as Lina adjusted the rucksack on her shoulders and rode off under the shade of the chestnut trees spanning Leinster Road. Carmel loved everything about the street she’d chosen to make her home. The tall Georgian mansions that lined both sides were once the homes of well-to-do families and their domestic help. They’d been snapped up by investors in the seventies and divided up into bedsits or flats. Now, twenty years on, they housed overseas students who were passing through or singles who couldn’t afford the mortgage repayments on a place of their own.

Carmel could have rented a much bigger apartment. One of those new flashy ones over in Ballsbridge with its own entry and a balcony high up in the trees that gave the feel of having a garden. Rent was dead money, though, and she was saving for her future.

“You’re not moving into that dog box,” her father had protested, when she’d broached the subject of moving out. “You have a perfectly good room here at home.”

“I know you want the best for me, Dad, but it’s time I had my own place. I need to spread my wings a bit. You were married with a kid at my age.”

His lips formed a thin line of displeasure. She needed to make her case before he shut the idea down completely. “And it’s so handy for work. I can be there in ten minutes.”

“I suppose,” Dad conceded with a heavy sigh. “It’s just that I’ll miss having my little girl at home with me. It won’t be the same without you.”

“You’ll see me at work all the time, Dad.” Carmel smiled for him, sensing victory was within her grasp. She felt a fleeting guilt for using the busines—the ace she always had up her sleeve—to smooth the path to getting what she wanted. She mustn’t allow that guilt to deter her. “You probably won’t even notice I’m gone,” she said, resting a reassuring hand on his arm.

As luck would have it, the auctioneer who was leasing the flat was a friend of a friend of the family, so Carmel got first refusal on the place. “It’s not what you know, Carmel.” The auctioneer winked, as he handed her the lease agreement and his Bic biro with a flourish. His words unsettled her. She was sick and tired of people saying it was all right for her. This mantra had clung to her like secondhand smoke her entire life.

It was as if all her years of hard work and proving herself in the business counted for nothing because she’d been born into it. That was why she was determined to start something of her own—something nobody could take away from her. She didn’t want special treatment because she was an Egan. But she’d spent weeks hunting for a half-decent place close to work, and this flat was perfect. So she signed on the dotted line.

Moving out of the big house on Grove Square had helped, even if it was only to a flat a mile away. It finally felt like she had room to breathe. She could go back to bed with the property section of the weekend papers on a Sunday morning, head out for a walk without having to tell anyone where she was going, and eat beans on toast for her dinner if she didn’t feel like cooking.

Mind you, it had raised a few eyebrows around the neighbourhood. A single woman leaving home before she was married, only to move down the road. What was the sense in that? It wasn’t as if she was going to university in another county or leaving for England or America. Why pay rent when you had ample room at home?

If she had a pound for every time someone told her she must be mad to leave the family home, she could have bought the place itself twice over. She wasn’t crazy—not yet anyway. That was exactly the point. She needed the sanity that only a bit of solitude could give her. And the time and space to dream—away from the nagging obligations of family and work.

Carmel checked the time on her watch; she’d better get a move on. Granny would be at the window looking out for her. She pulled on her good jeans, the only ones that were neither faded nor covered in paint, and the cream silk blouse Granny got her from Brown Thomas last Christmas. She debated whether to wear her black suede strappy sandals but decided to forgo the party heels that hadn’t seen an outing in a long while and settled on her flat loafers. Better for walking.

Outside on the landing, she smiled at a couple of new students who’d moved into the flat below the week before. It was a minor miracle to exchange a polite greeting, and nothing more, with people who didn’t know or care to know your life story. Some days she felt like packing a bag and skipping the country, fleeing the security and scrutiny that smothered her. She wouldn’t, though. How could she do that to the three people who relied on her?

They’d never twisted her arm. She could have gone to university when she left school. She’d had the points for Trinity. But she’d chosen the family business, Egan & Son Builders Merchants & Suppliers, instead. Her father and grandmother were delighted. Oddly, her mother had been the one to question her decision, even before she got her exam results. “Are you positive this is what you want, Carmel?” she’d asked, frowning, as they stood next to each other, plating slices of Black Forest gateau in the kitchen the weekend of her eighteenth birthday party.

“Of course!” Carmel declared, brightened by her first legal glass of champagne. “Sure what else would I do?”

“Anything,” Mam had said, eyes firmly fixed on the cake in front of them. “Anything you want.”

The Making of Her Bernadette Jiwa

The Making of Her is a page-turning mother-daughter love story, spanning the 1960s to 1990s, charting one woman’s journey to escape the legacy of the society that shaped her.

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