The Book of Tomorrow
The Book of Tomorrow
The Book of Tomorrow Cecelia Ahern
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2009
This edition published by Harper 2016
Copyright © Cecelia Ahern 2009
Cover design by Heike Schüssler © HarperCollinsPublishers 2016
Cecelia Ahern asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9780007233717
Ebook Edition © May 2016 ISBN: 9780007290062
‘Cecelia Ahern’s novels are like a box of emeralds … they are, one and all, dazzling gems’
Adriana Trigiani, author of The Shoemaker’s Wife
‘Beautiful and unexpected … both thought-provoking and life-affirming’
‘Intricate and emotional … really completely lovely’
‘A wry, dark drama’
‘Life-affirming, warm and wise’
‘Cecelia Ahern is an undisputed master when it comes to writing about relationships … Moving, real and exquisitely crafted.’
‘Exceptional … both heartbreaking and uplifting’
‘Both moving and thought-provoking’
‘An exquisitely crafted and poignant tale about finding the beauty that lies within the ordinary. Make space for it in your life’
‘An unusual and satisfying novel’
‘Ahern cleverly and thoughtfully turns the tables, providing thought-provoking life lessons.’
‘An intriguing, heartfelt novel, which makes you think about the value of life’
‘Insightful and true’
‘Ahern demonstrates a sure and subtle understanding of the human condition and the pleasures and pains in relationships’
‘Utterly irresistible … I devoured it in one sitting’
‘The legendary Ahern will keep you guessing … a classic’
For Marianne who moves so silently but causes a right clatter.
For my readers thank you for trusting me.
They say a story loses something with each telling. If that is the case, this story has lost nothing, for it’s the first time it’s been told.
This story is one for which some people will have to suspend their disbelief. If I wasn’t me and this wasn’t happening to me, I would be one of those people.
Many won’t struggle to believe it, though, for their minds have been opened; unlocked by whatever kind of key causes people to believe. Those people are either born that way or, as babies, when their minds are like little buds, they are nurtured until their petals slowly open and prepare for the very nature of life to feed them. As the rain falls and the sun shines, they grow, grow, grow; minds so open, they go through life aware and accepting, seeing light where there’s dark, seeing possibility in dead ends, tasting victory as others spit out failure, questioning when others accept. Just a little less jaded, a little less cynical. A little less likely to throw in the towel. Some people’s minds open later in life, through tragedy or triumph. Either thing acting as the key to unlatch and lift the lid on that know-it-all box, to accept the unknown, to say goodbye to pragmatism and straight lines.
But then there are those whose minds are merely a bouquet of stalks, which bud as they learn new information—a new bud for a new fact—but yet they never open, never flourish. They are the people of capital letters and full stops, but never of question marks and ellipses…
My parents were those kinds of people. The know-it-all kind. The ‘if it’s not in a book or I haven’t heard it anywhere before then don’t be ridiculous’ kind. Straight thinkers with heads filled with the most beautifully coloured buds, so neatly manicured and so sweetly scented but which never opened, were never light or dainty enough to dance in the breeze; upright and rigid, so matter-of-fact, they were buds till the day they died.
Well, my mother isn’t dead.
Not yet. Not medically, but if she is not dead, she is certainly not living. She’s like a walking corpse that hums every once in a while as though testing herself to see if she’s still alive. From far away you’d think she’s fine. But up close and you can see that the bright pink lipstick is a touch uneven, her eyes are tired and soulless, like one of those TV show houses on studio lots—all façade, nothing of substance behind. She moves around the house, drifting from room to room in a dressing gown with loosely flapping bell sleeves, as though she’s a southern belle on a mansion ranch in Gone with the Wind, worrying about worrying about it all tomorrow. Despite her graceful swanlike room-to-room drifts, she’s kicking furiously beneath the surface, thrashing around trying to keep her head up, flashing us the occasional panicked smile to let us know she’s still here, though it does nothing to convince us.
Oh, I don’t blame her. What a luxury it must be to disappear as she has, leaving everyone else to sweep up the mess and salvage whatever fragments of life are left.
I haven’t told you a thing yet, you must be very confused.
My name is Tamara Goodwin. Goodwin. One of those awful phrases I despise. It’s either a win or it’s not. Like ‘bad loss’, ‘hot sun’, or ‘very dead’. Two words that come together unnecessarily to say whatever could be said solely by the second. Sometimes when telling people my name I drop a syllable: Tamara Good, which is ironic as I’ve never been anything of the sort, or Tamara Win, which mockingly suggests good luck that just isn’t so.
I’m sixteen years old, or so they tell me. I question my age now because I feel twice it. At fourteen, I felt fourteen. I acted eleven and wanted to be eighteen. But in the past few months I’ve aged a few years. Is that possible? Closed buds would shake their heads no, opened minds would say possibly. Anything is possible, they would say. Well, it’s not. Anything is not.
It is not possible to bring my dad back to life. I tried, when I found him lying dead on the floor of his office—very dead, in fact—blue in the face, with an empty pill container by his side and an empty bottle of whisky on the desk. I didn’t know what I was doing but I pressed my lips to his regardless, and pumped up and down on his chest furiously. That didn’t work.
Nor did it work when my mother dived on his coffin at the graveyard during his burial and started howling and clawing at the varnished wood as he was lowered into the ground—which, by the way, was rather patronisingly covered by fake green grass as though trying to fool us it wasn’t the maggoty soil he was being lowered into for the rest of eternity. Though I admire Mum for trying, her breakdown at the grave didn’t bring him back.
Nor did the endless stories about my dad that were shared at the do afterwards during the ‘Who Knows George Best’ storytelling competition, where friends and family had their fingers on the buzzers, ready to jump in with, ‘You think that’s funny, wait till you hear this…’ ‘One time George and I…’, ‘I’ll never forget the time George said…’ All were so eager, they ended up talking over one another, and spilling tears and red wine on Mum’s new Persian rug. They tried their best, you could tell, and in a way he was almost in the room, but their stories didn’t bring him back.
Nor did it work when Mum discovered Dad’s personal finances were about as healthy as he. He was bankrupt; the bank had already put in place the repossession of our house and all the other properties he owned, which left Mum to sell everything—everything—that we owned to pay back the debts. He didn’t come back to help us then either. So I knew then that he was gone. He was really gone. I figured if he was going to let us go through all of that on our own—let me blow air into his dead body, let Mum scratch at his coffin in front of everybody, and then watch us be stripped of everything we’d ever owned, I was pretty sure he was gone for good.
It was good thinking on his part not to stick around for it all. It was all as awful and as humiliating as I’m sure he feared.
If my parents had flowering buds, then maybe, just maybe, they could have avoided all that. But they didn’t. There was no light at the end of that tunnel, and if ever there was, it was an oncoming train. There were no other possibilities, no other ways of doing things. They were practical, and there was no practical solution. Only faith and hope and some sort of belief could have seen my father through it. But he didn’t have any of that, and so when he did what he did, he effectively pulled us all into that grave with him.
It intrigues me how death, so dark and final, can shine a light on the character of a person. The lovely stories I heard about Dad during those weeks were endless and touching. They were comforting and I liked getting lost in those tales, but to be perfectly honest, I doubted if they were true. Dad wasn’t a nice man. I loved him, of course, but I know he wasn’t a good man. He and I rarely spoke and when we did, it was to argue over something, or he was giving me money to get rid of me. He was prickly, snapped often, had a temper that flared easily, he forced his opinions on others and was rather arrogant. He made people feel uncomfortable, inferior, and he enjoyed that. He would send his steak back three or four times in a restaurant just to watch the waiter sweat. He would order the most expensive bottle of wine and then claim it was corked just to annoy the restaurateur. He would complain to the police about noise levels of house parties on our street that we couldn’t even hear, and he’d have them shut down just because we weren’t invited.
I didn’t say any of this at his funeral or at the little party at our house afterwards. In fact, I didn’t say anything at all. I drank a bottle of red wine all by myself and ended up vomiting on the floor by Dad’s desk where he’d died. Mum found me there and slapped me across the face. She said I’d ruined it. I wasn’t sure if she meant the rug or Dad’s memory, but either way I was pretty sure that he’d fucked both of them up all by himself.
I’m not just heaping all the hate on my dad here. I was a horrible person. I was the worst possible daughter. They gave me everything and I rarely said thank you. Or if I said it, I don’t think I ever meant it. I don’t actually think that I knew what it meant. ‘Thank you’ is a sign of appreciation. Mum and Dad continually told me about the starving babies in Africa, as if that was a way to make me appreciate anything. Looking back on it, I realise the best way to make me appreciate anything was probably not to have given me everything.
We lived in a seven thousand square foot, six-bedroom contemporary mansion with a swimming pool and tennis court and a private beach in Killiney, County Dublin, in Ireland. My room was on the opposite side of the house to my parents’ and it had a balcony overlooking the beach that I don’t think I ever looked out at. It had an en suite with a shower and Jacuzzi bath, with a plasma TV—TileVision, to be precise—in the wall above the bath. I’d a wardrobe full of designer handbags, a computer, a PlayStation and a four-poster bed. Lucky me.
Now another truth: I was a nightmare daughter. I was rude, I answered back, I expected everything and, even worse, I thought I deserved everything just because everybody else I knew had them. It didn’t occur to me for one moment that they didn’t particularly deserve them either.
I figured out a way to escape my bedroom at night and sneak outside to meet with my friends; a climb from my bedroom balcony and down the piping, onto the roof of the swimming pool, then a few easy steps to the ground. There was an area on our private beach where my friends and I went drinking. The girls mostly drank Dolly Mixtures: the contents of our parents’ drinks cabinets all in one plastic bottle. That way if we took a few inches from each bottle they wouldn’t suspect anything. The guys drank whatever cider they could get their hands on. They also had whichever girl they could get their hands on. That person was mostly me. There was a boy, Fiachrá, who I stole from my best friend Zoey, whose dad was a famous actor and so—I’ll be honest—just because of that I used to let him put his hand up my skirt for about a half-hour every night. I figured that one day I’d get to meet his dad. But I never did.
My parents felt it was important for me to see the world and how other people live. They kept telling me how fortunate I was living in my big house by the sea, and so to help me appreciate the world, we spent our summers in our villa in Marbella, Christmas in our Verbier chalet and Easter in the New York Ritz, on a shopping trip. There was a pink convertible Mini Cooper with my name on it waiting for me for my seventeenth birthday, and a friend of my dad’s, who had a recording studio, was waiting to hear me sing and possibly sign me up. Though after I felt his hand on my arse, I never wanted to spend a moment alone in a room with him. Not even to be famous.
Mum and Dad attended charity functions throughout the year. Mum would spend more money on her dresses than the tables cost, and twice a year she’d pass on the impulse buys she never wore to her sister-in-law, Rosaleen, who lived down in the country—in case Rosaleen ever felt the need to milk cows in a Pucci sundress.
I know now—now that we’re out of the world we once lived in—that we weren’t very nice people. I think somewhere beneath the nonresponsive surface of my mother that she knows it too. We weren’t evil people, we just weren’t nice. We didn’t offer anything to anybody in the world but we took an awful lot.
But, we didn’t deserve this.
Before, I’d never think of tomorrow. I lived in the now. I wanted this now, I wanted that now. The last time I saw my father I shouted at him and told him I hated him and then I slammed the door in his face. I never took a step back, or a step outside of my little world to think about what on earth I was doing or saying, and how it was hurting anybody else. I told Dad I never wanted to see him again, and I never did. I never thought about the next day or about the possibility that they would be my final words to him and that that would be my final moment with him. That’s a lot to have to deal with. I have a lot to forgive myself for. It’s taking time.
But now, because of Dad’s death and because of the thing I have yet to share with you, I have no choice but to think of tomorrow and all the people that tomorrow affects. Now, I’m glad when I wake up in the morning that there is one.
I lost my dad. He lost his tomorrows and I lost all the tomorrows with him. You could say that now, I appreciate them when they come. Now, I want to make them the best they can possibly be.
In order for ants to find the safest route to food, one goes out on its own. When that lone ant has found the path, it leaves a chemical trail for the others to follow. When you stamp on a line of ants or, less psychotically, if you interfere in their chemical trail in any way, it drives them crazy. The ones that have been left behind crawl around frantically in panic, trying to regain the trail. I like watching them at first totally disoriented, running around bumping into one another while trying to figure out which way to go, then regrouping, reorganising, and eventually crossing the pathway back in their straight line as if nothing had ever happened.
Their panic reminds me of Mum and I. Somebody broke our line, took out our leader, ruined our trail and our lives descended into utter chaos. I think—I hope—that with time, we’ll find the right way to go again. It takes one to lead the rest. I think, seeing as Mum is sitting this one out, that it’s up to me to go out front alone.
I was watching a bluebottle yesterday. In an effort to escape the living room, he kept flying against the window, hitting his head against the glass over and over. Then he stopped launching himself at it like a missile and stuck to one little windowpane, buzzing about like he was having a panic attack. It was frustrating to watch, especially because if he’d just flown up a little bit higher towards the top of the window, he’d have been free. But he just kept doing the same thing over and over again. I could imagine his frustration of being able to see the trees, the flowers, the sky, yet not being able to get to them. I tried to help him a few times, to guide him towards the open window, but he flew away from me around the room. He’d eventually come back to the same window and I could almost hear him: ‘Well, this is the way I came in…’
I wonder if my watching him from the armchair is what it’s like to be God, if there is a God. He sits back and sees the big picture, just as I could see that if the bluebottle just moved up the window to the top, then he’d be free. He wasn’t really trapped at all, he was just looking in the wrong place. I wonder if God can see a way out for me and Mum. If I can see the open window for the fly, God can see the tomorrows for me and Mum. That idea brings me comfort. Well, it did, until I left the room and returned a few hours later to see a dead bluebottle on the windowsill. It may not have been him, but still…Then, to show you where my mind is right now, I started crying…Then I got mad at God because in my head the death of that bluebottle meant Mum and I might never find our way out of this mess. What good is it being so far back you can see everything and yet not do anything to help?
Then I realised that I was the god on this occasion. I had tried to help the bluebottle, but it wouldn’t let me. And then I felt sorry for God because I understood his frustration. Sometimes when people offer a helping hand, it gets pushed away. People always want to help themselves first.
I never used to think about these things before; God, bluebottles, ants. I’d rather have been caught dead than be seen sitting in an armchair with a book in my hand and staring at a dirty fly tapping against a window on a Saturday. Maybe that’s what Dad had thought in his final moments: I’d rather be caught dead here in my study than go through the humiliation of having everything taken from me.
My Saturdays used to be spent in Topshop with my friends, trying on absolutely everything and laughing nervously while Zoey stuffed as many accessories down her pants as she could manage before leaving the store. If we weren’t in Topshop we’d spend the day sitting in Starbucks having a grande gingersnap latte and banana honey muffin. I’m sure that’s what they’re all doing now.
I haven’t heard from anyone since the first week I got here, except a text from Laura before my phone was cut off, filling me on all the gossip, the biggest of all being that Zoey and Fiachrá got back together and did it in Zoey’s house when her parents were away in Monte Carlo for the weekend. Her dad has a gambling problem, which Zoey and the rest of us loved because it meant when we all stayed over at her house, her parents would come home much later than everybody else’s. Anyway, apparently Zoey said that sex with Fiachrá hurt worse than the time the lesbian from the Sutton hockey team hit her between the legs with the stick, which was really bad, believe me—I saw—and she isn’t in a rush to do it again. Meanwhile Laura told me not to tell anyone but she was meeting Fiachrá at the weekend to do it. She hopes I don’t mind and please don’t tell Zoey. As if I could tell anyone if I wanted to, where I am.
Where I am. I haven’t told you that yet, have I? I’ve mentioned my mum’s sister-in-law, Rosaleen, already. She’s the one my mum used to empty her wardrobe of all her unworn impulse buys for and send them down in black sacks with the tags still on. Rosaleen’s married to my uncle Arthur, who is my mum’s brother. They live in a gatehouse in the country in a place called Meath in the middle of nowhere with hardly anybody else around. We visited them only a few times in my life and I was always bored to death. It took us an hour and fifteen minutes to get there and the build-up was always a let down. I thought they were hicks in the middle of the sticks. I used to call them the Deliverance Duo. That’s the only time I remember Dad laughing at one of my jokes. He never came with us when we visited Rosaleen and Arthur. I don’t think they ever had an argument or anything, but like penguins and polar bears, they were just too far apart ever to be able to spend any time near one another. Anyway, that’s where we live now. In the gatehouse with the Deliverance Duo.
It’s a sweet house, a quarter the size of our old one which is no bad thing, and it reminds me of the one in ‘Hansel and Gretel’. It’s built from limestone and the wood around the windows and roof is painted olive green. There are three bedrooms upstairs and a kitchen and a living room downstairs. Mum has an en suite but Rosaleen, Arthur and I all share a bathroom on the second floor. Used to having my own bathroom, I think this is gross, particularly when I have to go in there after my uncle Arthur and his newspaper-reading session. Rosaleen is a neat freak, obsessively tidy; she never ever sits down. She’s always moving things, cleaning things, spraying chemicals in the air, and saying stuff about God and his will. I said to her once that I hoped God’s will was better than the one Dad left behind for us. She looked at me horrified and scuttled off to dust somewhere else.
Rosaleen has the depth of a shot glass. Everything she talks about is totally irrelevant, unnecessary. The weather. The sad news about a poor person on the other side of the world. Her friend down the road who has broken her arm, or who has a father with two months to live, or somebody’s daughter who married a dick who is leaving her with her second child. Everything is doom and gloom and followed by some sort of utterance about God, like, ‘God love them,’ or ‘God is gracious,’ or ‘Let God be good to them.’ Not that I talk about anything important, but if I ever try to discuss those things in more detail, like get to the root of the problem, Rosaleen is totally incapable of carrying on. She only wants to talk about the sad problem, she’s not interested in talking about why it happened, nor in the solution. She shushes me with her God phrases, makes me feel like I’m speaking out of turn or as though I’m so young I couldn’t possibly take the reality. I think it’s the other way around. I think she brings things up so that she doesn’t feel like she’s avoiding them, and once they’re out of the way, she doesn’t talk about them ever again.
I think I’ve heard my uncle Arthur speak about five words in my life. It’s as though Mum has gone through her life speaking for both of them—not that he would have shared her views on anything she said. Arthur speaks more than Mum these days. He has an entire language of his own, which I’ve slowly but surely learned to decipher. He speaks in grunts, nods and snot-snorts; a kind of mucous inhale, which is something he does when he disagrees with something. A mere, ‘Ah,’ and a throw back of the head means he’s not bothered by something. For example, here is how a typical breakfast-time would go.
Arthur and I are sitting at the kitchen table and Rosaleen as usual is buzzing about the place with crockery piled with toast, and little dishes of home-made jam, honey and marmalade. The radio, as usual, is blaring so loudly I can hear every word the presenter is saying from my bedroom; some annoying miserable man talking in monotone about the terrible things happening in the world. And so Rosaleen comes to the table with the teapot.
Arthur throws back his head like a horse trying to rid his mane of a fly. He wants tea.
And the man on the radio talks about how another factory in Ireland has closed and one hundred people are losing their jobs.
Arthur inhales and a load of mucus is sucked up through his nose and then down his throat. He doesn’t like this.
Rosaleen appears at the table with another plate of toast piled high. ‘Oh, isn’t that terrible, God love their families. And the little ones now with their daddys out of work.’
‘Their mothers too, you know,’ I say, taking a slice of toast.
Rosaleen watches me bite into the toast and her green eyes widen as I chew. She always watches me eat and it freaks me out. It’s as though she is the witch from ‘Hansel and Gretel’, watching for me to become plump enough so that she can throw me into the Aga with my hands tied behind my back and an apple stuffed in my gob. I wouldn’t mind an apple. It would be the fewest calories she’d ever given me.
I swallow what’s in my mouth and put the rest of my toast down on my plate.
She leaves again, disappointed.
On the news they talk about some new government tax increase and Arthur inhales more mucus. If he hears any more bad news, he’ll have no room for his breakfast with all that mucus. He’s only in his forties but he looks and acts older. From the shoulders up he reminds me of a king prawn, always bent over something, whether it’s his food or his work.
Rosaleen returns with a plate of Irish breakfast enough to feed all the children of the one hundred factory workers who have just lost their jobs.
Arthur throws his head back again. He’s happy about this.
Rosaleen stands beside me and pours me tea. I’d love nothing more than a gingersnap lattÉ but I tip the milk into the strong tea and sip it all the same. Her eyes watch me and don’t look away till I swallow.
I don’t know how old Rosaleen is exactly but I’m guessing somewhere in her early-to-mid-forties, and if this makes sense, I’m sure whatever age she really is, she looks ten years older. She looks like she’s from the 1940s in her floral tea dresses buttoned down the middle, with a slip underneath. My mum never wore slips; she barely wore underwear. Rosaleen has mouse-brown hair, always worn down, parted sharply in the centre of her head, revealing grey roots, and it’s short, to her chin. She always tucks her hair behind both ears, pink little mouse ears peeping out. She never wears earrings. Or makeup. She always wears a gold crucifix on a thin gold chain around her neck. She’s the kind of woman that my friend Zoey would say looks like she’s never had an orgasm in her life and I wonder, while cutting the fat off the bacon and as Rosaleen’s eyes widen at me doing this, if Zoey had an orgasm when she did it with Fiachrá. Then I visualised the damage the hockey stick did to her and I instantly doubted it.
Across the road from the gatehouse is a bungalow. I have no idea who lives in it but Rosaleen pops back and forth every day with little parcels of food. Two miles down the road is a post office, which is operated from somebody’s house, and across the road from that is the smallest school I’ve ever seen, which unlike my school at home, which has activities every hour throughout the year, is completely empty during the summer. I asked if there were any yoga classes or anything in it and Rosaleen told me she’d show me how to make yoghurt herself. She seemed so happy that I couldn’t correct her. In the first week I watched her make strawberry yoghurt. In the second week, I was still eating it.
The gatehouse that is Arthur and Rosaleen’s house once protected the side entrance to Kilsaney Castle in the 1700s. The castle’s main entrance has a disused scary-looking gothic entrance that I imagine I see severed heads hanging out of every time we pass. The castle was built as a towered fortification of the Norman Pale—that was the area with Norman and English control in the East of Ireland, established after Strongbow invaded—sometime between 1100 and 1200, which, when you think about it, is a bit vague. It’s the difference between me or my half-human, half-robot great-great-great-great-grandchildren building something. Anyway, it was built for a Norman warlord, so that’s why I think of the severed heads, because they did that, didn’t they?
The area it’s in is called County Meath. It used to be East Meath and, along with Westmeath—surprise surprise—it made up a separate and fifth province in Ireland, which was the territory of the High King. The former seat of the High Kings, the Hill of Tara, is only a few kilometres away. It’s in the news all the time now because they’re building a motorway nearby. We had to debate it in school a few months ago. I was ‘for’ the motorway being built because I thought the King would have liked to have one in his day, as it would have made it easier for him to get to his office instead of having to go through shitty fields. Imagine the filth on his sandals. I also said it would be more accessible for tourists. They could drive right up to it or take photographs from open-top buses going one hundred and twenty kilometres on the motorway. I was only taking the piss, but our substitute teacher went crazy, thinking I actually meant it, because she was on a committee to try and prevent the motorway being built. It’s so easy to give substitute teachers nervous breakdowns. Especially the ones who believe they can do some good for the students. I told you, I was nasty.
After the Norman psycho, various lords and ladies lived in the castle. They built on stables and outhouses around the place. Controversially one lord even converted to Catholicism after marrying a Catholic, and built a chapel as a treat for the family. Me and Mum got a swimming pool as our treat, but each to their own. The demesne is surrounded by a famine wall, which was a project to provide work for the starving during the potato famine. It runs right along Arthur and Rosaleen’s garden and house, and creeps me out every time I see it. If Rosaleen had ever visited our house for dinner she’d probably have started building a wall around us, because none of us eats carbs. At least, we never used to eat carbs, now I’m eating so much I could fuel all the factories they’re closing down.
Kilsaney descendants continued to live in the castle until the 1920s, when some arsonists didn’t get the memo that the inhabitants were Catholic and they burned them out. After that they could only live in a small section of the castle because they couldn’t afford to fix it up and heat it, and then they eventually moved out in the nineties. I don’t know who owns it now but it’s fallen into disrepair: no roof, fallen-down walls, no stairs, you get the idea. There’s loads of stuff growing inside it and whatever else that scutters around. I learned all that while I was doing a project on it for school. Mum suggested I stay with Rosaleen and Arthur for the weekend and do some research. She and Dad had the biggest fight I’d ever seen or heard that day, and Dad became even more crazy when she suggested I go away. The atmosphere was so bad that I was happy to leave them. Plus, Mum trying to get me to leave the house really pissed Dad off, and so feeling it was my duty as a daughter to make his life hell, I merely obliged. But as soon as I got there, I wasn’t really interested in snooping around and finding out the history of the place. I just about managed to stay with Rosaleen and Arthur for lunch, and then went to the toilet to call my Filipino nanny, Mae—who we’ve since had to send back home—and made her collect me and bring me home. I told Rosaleen I had stomach cramps and tried not to laugh when she asked me if I thought it was the apple pie.
I ended up taking an essay about the castle from the internet. I was called to the principal’s office and she failed me for plagarism, which was ridiculous because Zoey did her project on Malahide Castle, stole everything from the internet, changed a few words and dates around, got the words and dates wrong to make it look like she didn’t copy it, and she still got a higher score than me. Where’s the justice in that?
Surrounding the castle is one hundred acres of land. Arthur is the groundskeeper here and, with one hundred acres to look after, he’s out first thing in the morning and back at five thirty on the button, as dirty as a coal miner. He never complains, he never groans about the weather, he just gets up, eats his breakfast while deafening himself with the radio, and then goes out to work. Rosaleen gives him a flask of tea and a few sandwiches to keep him going and he rarely comes back, except to get something from the garage that he forgot, or to go to the toilet. He’s a simple man only I don’t really believe that. Nobody who says as little as he does, is as simple as you’d think. It takes a lot to not say a lot, because when you’re not talking, you’re thinking, and he thinks a lot. My mum and dad talked all the time. Talkers don’t think much; their words drown out any possibility of hearing their subconscious asking, Why did you say that? What do you really think?
I used to stay in bed for as long as possible on school mornings and on weekends until Mae dragged me out kicking and screaming. But here, I wake up early. Surrounded by so many gigantic trees, the place is swarming with birds. They’re so loud and I just wake up without feeling tired. I’m always up by seven, which is nothing short of miraculous for me. Mae would be so proud. The evenings here are long too, and so there’s pressure having to keep myself busy during the daylight. That’s an awful lot of hours for an awful lot of nothing to do.
Dad decided he’d had enough in May, right before my Junior Certificate exams, which was a little unfair as, up until then, I thought I was the one who was supposed to want to top myself. I did my exams anyway. I probably failed them, but I don’t really care and I don’t think anybody else does either. I’ll find those results out in September. My entire class came to Dad’s funeral, which I’m sure they loved because they got a day off school. With all that going on, can you believe I was actually embarrassed about crying in front of them. I did it anyway, which started off Zoey and then Laura. A girl in my class called Fiona, who nobody ever talked to, hugged me really tight and gave me a card from her family saying that they were all thinking of me. Fiona gave me her mobile number and her favourite book, and said she’d be there for me if I ever needed somebody to talk to. At the time I thought it was a bit lame, her trying to get in with me at my dad’s funeral, but thinking about it after—which is something I do now—it was the kindest thing anybody did or said to me that day.
I started reading the book in the first week I moved to Meath. It was a kind of a ghost story about a girl who was invisible to everybody in the world, including her family and friends, even though they knew she existed. She was just born invisible. I won’t give away the rest but she eventually becomes friends with someone who does see her. I liked the idea and thought Fiona was trying to say something, but when I stayed overnight in Zoey’s house and told her and Laura, they thought it was the weirdest thing they’d ever heard and that Fiona was even more of a freak. You know what, I’m finding it increasingly hard to understand them.
During the first week that we moved here Arthur drove me to Dublin so that I could stay overnight in Zoey’s house. The car journey was over an hour and we never spoke once. The only thing he said was, ‘Radio?’ and then when I nodded he turned it on to one of those channels that just talk about the problems in the country and don’t play music and he snot-snorted his way through it. But at least it was better than silence. After spending the night with Zoey and Laura—and bitching about him all night—I was feeling confident. Back to my old self. We all agreed that he and Rosaleen definitely lived up to being called the Deliverance Duo and that I shouldn’t allow them to pull me into their weirdo existence. That meant that I should be able to listen to whatever the hell I wanted in the car. But the next day, when he picked me up in his filthy dirty Land Rover, which Zoey and Laura so obviously couldn’t stop laughing at, I felt bad for Arthur. I felt really bad.
Having to go back to a house that wasn’t mine, in a car that wasn’t mine, to sleep in a room that wasn’t mine, to try to talk to a mother that didn’t feel like mine, made me want to hold on to at least one thing that was familiar. Who I used to be. It wasn’t necessarily the right thing to hold on to, but it was something. I kicked up a fuss in the car and told Arthur that I wanted to listen to something else. He put my favourite radio station on for one song and then he got so frustrated listening to the Pussycat Dolls singing about wanting boobies, he grumbled and changed it back to the talk channel. I stared out the window in a huff, hating him and hating myself both at the same time. For half an hour we listened to a woman crying down the phone to the presenter about how her husband had lost his job in a computer factory, couldn’t find another and they had four children to look after. My hair was down across my face and all I could do was hope that Arthur didn’t see me crying. Sad stuff really gets to me now. I heard about it before but I was kind of numb to it. It just didn’t happen to me.
I don’t know how long we’re going to live here. Nobody will answer that question for me. Arthur simply doesn’t talk, my mum isn’t communicating and Rosaleen isn’t able to cope with a question of that magnitude.
My life is not going as I planned. I’m sixteen and by now I should have had sex with Fiachrá. I should be in our villa in Marbella swimming every day, eating barbecued dinners, clubbing every night at Angels & Demons and finding guy number two to fancy and sleep with. If the first person I sleep with ends up being the man I marry, I think I’ll die. Instead, I’m living in hicksville, in a gatehouse with three crazy people, the nearest things to us being a bungalow housing people that I’ve never seen, a post office that’s practically in somebody’s living room, an empty school, and a ruined castle. I have absolutely nothing to do with my life.
Or so I thought.
I’m choosing to start the story from when I arrived here.
My mum’s best friend, Barbara, drove us to our new life in Meath. Mum didn’t say a word the whole way. Not one word. Even when asked a question. Now that’s a hard thing to do. I got so frustrated that I shouted at her in the car; this was back when I was trying to get her to respond.
It all happened because Barbara got lost. Her satellite navigation kit in her BMW X5 failed to recognise the address and so we just headed to the nearest town it could locate. When we got to the town, a place called Ratoath, Barbara had to rely on her own brain and not the equipment in her SUV. As it turns out, Barbara’s not a thinker. After ten minutes spent driving down country roads with few houses and no signposts, I could tell Barbara was starting to get nervous. We were driving down roads which, according to the sat nav, didn’t exist. I should have taken this as a sign. Used to going somewhere, and not down invisible roads, Barbara began to make mistakes, driving blindly through crossroads, veering dangerously on to the other side of the road. I’d only been there a handful of times over the years and so I was no help, but the plan was this: for me to look on the left-hand side for gatehouses and for Barbara to look on the right-hand side. She snapped at me at one stage for not concentrating, but really, I could see that there were no gates for at least a mile, so there was absolutely no point in looking. This, I shared with her. At breaking point she snapped that meant ‘feck all,’ seeing as we were already driving down ‘fecking roads that don’t exist’, so she couldn’t see why there couldn’t be ‘a fecking house without a fecking gate’. Hearing the word ‘fecking’ come out of Barbara’s mouth was a big deal considering her usual expression of annoyance was ‘fiddlesticks!’
Mum could have helped us but she just sat in the front seat smiling as she looked out the window. So, trying to help matters, I leaned forward and—okay, it wasn’t right and it wasn’t clever, but it was what I did, regardless—I shouted in her ear, the loudest possible scream that I could summon up. Mum jumped with fright, blocked her ears and then when her shock had died down, with two hands she swatted me across the head over and over again as though I were a swarm of bees. It really hurt me too. She pulled at my hair, scratched me, slapped me and I couldn’t escape her grip. Barbara got so upset she pulled the car over and had to pry Mum’s hands off me. Then she got out of the car and paced up and down the side of the road crying. I was crying too and my head was pounding from where Mum had pulled and scratched at it. It’s fashionable where I’m from to have a hairstyle like a haystack but Mum just ruined it; she’d made me look like somebody from an insane asylum. We both left her in the car, sitting upright, looking straight ahead and angry.
‘Come here to me, sweetheart,’ Barbara said, between tears, and she reached her arms out to me.
I didn’t need to be asked twice for a hug. I longed for a hug. Even when Mum was on form, she wasn’t a hugger. She was bony, always dieting, had the same relationship with food as she had with Dad; loved it but didn’t want it most of the time because she felt it was bad for her. I know this because I overheard a conversation she had with a friend at two a.m. on returning from a ladies’ lunch. But regarding the hugging, I think she just felt awkward having somebody physically so close. She wasn’t a comfortable person and so had no comfort to give anybody else. It’s like words of advice; you can’t give them unless you have them. I don’t think it meant she didn’t care. I never felt she didn’t care. Well, okay, maybe I did, a few times.
Barbara and I stood on the side of the road embracing and crying while she apologised to me over and over again about how unfair this all was for me. When she’d pulled over, she’d left the car’s arse sticking out on the road and so every car that came round the corner blasted us with its horn, but we ignored them.
The tension was released somewhat after that. You know the way storm clouds gather when there’s going to be rain—that’s what had been happening with us all the way from Killiney. It was all building, and finally it exploded. So feeling like we’d all had the chance to release at least a portion of our woes, we prepared ourselves for what lay ahead. Only we didn’t have time because as soon as we rounded the next turn we were there. Home sweet home. On the right-hand side stood a gate, and just inside it on the left, was a house. Rosaleen and Arthur were standing by the little green gate of their ‘Hansel and Gretel’ house and God knows how long they’d been waiting there. We were almost an hour late. If they were pretending not to look worried about the whole thing, then it must have been near impossible when they saw our faces. Not knowing we were so close to the house we hadn’t enough time to compose ourselves. My and Barbara’s eyes were red raw from crying, Mum was in the front seat with a look of thunder on her face and my hair was high in tatters—well, more tattered than usual.
I never thought about how difficult that moment must have been for Arthur and Rosaleen. I was so busy thinking about myself and how much I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t once think about how they were opening their home to two people they had no relationship with. It must have been so unbelievably nerve-racking for them and I didn’t thank them once.
Barbara and I got out of the car. She went to the boot to sort out the bags, and I assume give us all a moment to greet. That didn’t quite happen. I stood there looking at Arthur and Rosaleen, who were still standing behind the little green swinging gate and I immediately wished I’d dropped bread-crumbs all the way from Killiney so I could find my way home.
Rosaleen looked from one of us to another like a meerkat, trying to take in the SUV, Mum, me, Barbara, all at once. She clasped her hands at her front, but kept unlocking them to smooth down her dress as though she were at a Lovely Girl competition in a country feis. Mum finally opened the door and got out of the car. She stepped onto the gravel and looked up at the house. Then her anger disappeared and she smiled, revealing puce lipstick on her front teeth.
‘Arthur.’ She held out her arms as though she had just opened the door to her home and was welcoming him to a dinner party.
He snot-snorted, inhaling the mucus—the first time I’d heard it—which made my lip curl in disgust. He stepped towards Mum and she took his hands and looked at him, her head tilted, that strange smile still pulling at her lips like a bad face-lift. In an awkward movement she leaned forward and rested her forehead against his. Arthur stayed there a millisecond longer than I thought he would, then patted the back of her neck and pulled away from her. He patted me hard on the head as if I was his faithful collie, which messed my hair even more, and then made his way to the boot to help Barbara with the bags. So that left me and Mum staring at Rosaleen, only Mum wasn’t staring at her. She was inhaling the fresh air deeply, with her eyes closed, and smiling. Despite the depressing situation, I had a good feeling then that this could be good for Mum.
I wasn’t as worried about her then as I am now. It had only been a month since Dad’s funeral and we were both feeling numb and unable really to say much to each other or to anybody else for that matter. People were so busy talking to us, saying nice things, tactless things, whatever things popped into their heads—almost looking for us to console them and not the other way around—that Mum’s behaviour wasn’t noticeable so much. She was just sighing along with everybody else every now and again, and saying little words here and there. A funeral is like a little game, really. You have to just play along and say the right thing and behave the right way until it’s over. Be pleasant but don’t smile too much; be sad but don’t overdo it or the family will feel worse than they already do. Be hopeful but don’t let your optimism be taken as a lack of empathy or an inability to deal with the reality. Because if anybody was to be truly honest there would be a lot of arguments, finger-pointing, tears, snot, and screaming.
I think there should be the Real Life Oscars. And Best Actress goes to Alison Flanagan! For walking down the main aisle of the supermarket just last Monday, face in full makeup, hair freshly blow-dried, despite feeling like wanting to die, smiling brightly to Sarah and Deirdre from the Parents’ Association and behaving as if her husband hadn’t just left her and her three children. Come up here and get your award, Alison! Best Supporting Actress goes to the woman he left her for, who was just two aisles away, and who subsequently quite hastily left the supermarket, missing two items of the makings of her new boyfriend’s favourite lasagne. Best Actor goes to Gregory Thomas for his performance at the funeral of his father, whom he hadn’t spoken to for two years. Best Supporting Actor goes to Leo Mulcahy for playing the role of Best Man at a wedding celebrating the marriage of his best friend, Simon, to the only woman Leo has ever, and will ever, truly love. Come up and get the gong, Leo!
That’s what I thought Mum was doing, just playing along, being the good widow, but then afterwards when her behaviour didn’t change, when it felt like she didn’t actually know what was going on and she was using those same little words and sighs in every conversation, I wondered then if she was bluffing. I’m still wondering how much of her is actually with us and how much she’s pretending just so she doesn’t have to deal with it. There was a crack in her, quite understandably, immediately after Dad died, but when people stopped looking at her and went back to their own lives, the crack kept growing, and it seemed like I was the only person who could see it.
It wasn’t the Bank that were being exceptionally unreasonable by turfing us out on our ear. They had already given Dad the repossession date but, along with a ‘Goodbye’, it was just another message he’d forgotten to pass on to us. So even though they’d let us all stay for much longer than they’d threatened, we had to leave at some stage. Mum and I stayed in the back of Barbara’s house, in her Filipino nanny’s mews, for a week. Eventually we had to leave there too because Barbara had to go to their house in St Tropez for the summer and was obviously afraid we’d steal the silver.
Though I said I wasn’t as worried about Mum as when we first arrived at the gatehouse, it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t concerned at all. My suggestion before we arrived here was that Mum go see a doctor, whereas now I’m thinking she should check herself into one of those places where people wear white bumless smocks all day and rock back and forth in the hallways. It was to Barbara that I suggested Mum should visit the doctor. Barbara just patronisingly sat me down in her kitchen and told me that Mum was doing what is called ‘grieving’. At sixteen years old, you can imagine how delightful it was to learn that word for the first time. And then I settled down for a conversation about heavy petting. But she didn’t go there. Instead, she asked if I minded sitting on her suitcase while she zipped it shut because Lulu, the glue that holds her life together, had taken the kids to their horse-riding lessons. As I sat on her bulging Louis Vuitton suitcase and she zipped in her zebra-print bikinis, gold thong sandals and ridiculous hats, I made a wish for it to burst open on the conveyer belt at the airport in St Tropez, and for her vibrator to fall out and buzz around for everybody to see.
So there we were, on the first day of the rest of my life, outside the gatehouse, Mum with her eyes closed, Rosaleen staring at me with excited wide green eyes and her little pink tongue licking her lips now and then, Arthur snot-snorting at Barbara, which meant he didn’t want her to carry any bags, and Barbara watching him with bewilderment and probably trying not to gag at his snot-snorting, in her loose tracksuit, flip-flops and Oompa-Loompa orange face. She’d just had a spray tan that morning.
‘Jennifer,’ Rosaleen finally broke the silence over on our side.
Mum opened her eyes and smiled brightly and it seemed to me that she recognised Rosaleen and knew exactly what she was doing. If you hadn’t spent every second of the last month with her as I had, you’d think she was okay. She was bluffing rather well.
‘Welcome,’ Rosaleen smiled.
‘Yes. Thank you.’ Mum chose a correct response from her little words file.
‘Come in, come in, and we’ll get you some tea,’ Rosaleen said with urgency in her voice, as though we were all going to die unless we had some tea.
I didn’t want to follow them. I didn’t want to go in because then that would mean that it all had to start. Reality, that is. No more in-betweenness of funeral arrangements or Barbara’s mews. This was the new arrangement and it had to begin.
Arthur, the king prawn, rushed by me and up the garden path laden down with bags. He was stronger than he looked.
The car boot slammed and I spun round. Barbara was fidgeting with her car keys and shifting from one Louis Vuitton flip-flopped foot to the other. It was only then that I noticed she had cotton wool between her toes. She looked at me, awkwardly, in a heavy silence while she figured out how to tell me she was leaving me.
‘I didn’t realise you had a pedicure done too,’ I said to fill the silence.
‘Yes.’ She looked down and wriggled her toes as if to confirm it. Jewels glistened from her big toes. And then she added, ‘Danielle’s invited us to a drinks party on her yacht tomorrow evening.’
Most people would think those two sentences were unrelated, but I understood. You can’t wear shoes on Danielle’s yacht, therefore competition of the jewels and white tips would be fierce. Those women would find ways to accessorise their patellas if they were the only parts showing.
We stared at each other in silence. She was dying to go. I wanted to go with her. I too wanted to be shoeless on the Mediteranean coast while Danielle floated around the guests holding a martini glass daintily between her squared French tips, a plunging Cavalli dress revealing tits as pert as the pimento-stuffed olive floating in her glass, and on her head a tilted sea captain’s hat, making her look like Captain Birdseye in drag. I wanted to be a part of that.
‘You’ll be all right here, sweetheart,’ she said, and I sensed sincerity. ‘With family.’
I looked back uncertainly at the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ house and wanted to cry again.
‘Oh, sweetheart,’ she said, sensing this, and came at me again with her arms held out. She was really good at hugging, she obviously felt comfortable with it. That, or her implants suitably assisted in cushioning my head. I squeezed her tightly again and closed my eyes, but she let go a little sooner than I wanted and I was plunged back into reality.
‘Okay,’ she inched her way towards the car and placed her hand on the door handle. ‘I don’t want to disturb them inside so please tell them—’
‘Come in, come in,’ Rosaleen’s voice sang out from the blackness of the hallway, stopping Barbara from climbing up into her jeep. ‘Hello, there,’ Rosaleen appeared at the door. ‘Won’t you come in for a cup of tea? I’m sorry I don’t know your name, Jennifer didn’t say.’
She’d have to get used to that. There was a lot Jennifer wasn’t going to say.
‘Barbara,’ Barbara replied, and I noticed her grip tightening on the door handle.
‘Barbara,’ Rosaleen’s green eyes glowed like a cat’s. ‘A cup of tea before you hit the road, Barbara? There’s some fresh scones and home-made strawberry jam there too.’
Barbara’s face was frozen in a smile as she thought hard for an excuse.
‘She can’t come in,’ I responded for her. Barbara looked at me, gratefully, and then guiltily.
‘Oh…’ Rosaleen’s face fell, as though I’d ruined her tea party.
‘She has to go home and wash her fake tan off,’ I added. I told you, I’m a horrible, horrible person, and in my eyes, even though I was none of Barbara’s business and she had a life of her own, which she needed to get back to, she was still leaving me behind. ‘And her toes are still wet.’ I shrugged.
‘Oh.’ Rosaleen looked confused as though I’d spoken some odd Celtic Tiger language. ‘Coffee then?’
I burst out laughing and Rosaleen looked hurt. I heard Barbara flip-flopping behind me and she passed by without looking at me. I’d made it easier for her to leave. Next to Rosaleen, Barbara—even in her velour tracksuit, flip-flops and dirty fake-tanned neck—looked like some sort of exotic goddess. And then she was sucked inside the house, like a Venus flytrap catching a butterfly.
Despite Rosaleen gazing at me hopefully, I still couldn’t bring myself to go inside.
‘I’m going to have a look around,’ I said.
She seemed disappointed, as though I’d denied her something precious. I waited for her to go back into the house, to disappear into the blackness of the hallway, which was like another dimension, but she didn’t move. She stood at the porch, watching me and I realised I’d have to move first. With her eyes searing into me, I looked around. Which way to go? To my left was the house, behind me was the open gate leading to the main road, in front of me trees and to my right a small pathway that led into the darkness of the trees. I started walking down the main road. I didn’t turn round, not once, I didn’t want to know if she was still there. But the further I walked it wasn’t just Rosaleen that I felt was watching me. I felt revealed, as though beyond the majestic trees somebody else was watching. Just that feeling you get when you intrude on nature’s world, that you’re not supposed to be here, not without an invitation. The trees that lined the road all turned their heads to watch me.
If men dressed in armour had come galloping towards me on horseback and waving swords, they wouldn’t have seemed out of place. The estate was steeped in history, crowded with ghosts of the past, and now here I was, just another person ready to begin my story. The trees had seen it all, yet still I held their interest, and as the light summer breeze blew, leaves swished to one another making the sounds of gossiping lips, never growing bored of another generation’s journey.
I followed the main road and finally the trees, which were cleverly landscaped to conceal the castle, fell away. Even though it was me that was moving towards it, the castle felt suddenly upon me, as though it had sneaked towards me without my even noticing, a whole pile of sneaky stone and mortar on its tiptoes with a finger across its lips, as if it hadn’t had a bit of fun for the past few hundred years. I stopped walking when it came in sight. Little me before big castle. It felt to me to be more domineering, more commanding as a ruin than as a castle because there it stood before me with its scars revealed, all wounded and bloody from battle. And I stood before it, feeling a shadow of who I used to be, with my scars revealed. We instantly bonded.
We studied one another and then I walked towards it, and it didn’t blink once.
Though I could have walked into the castle through the gaping hole in the side wall, I felt it would be more respectful to enter through the other bite life had taken out of it, which used to be the front entrance. Respectful to whom, I don’t exactly know, but I think I was trying to appeal to the softer side of the castle. I paused at the door, a respectful pause, and then went inside. There was a lot of green, a lot of rubble. It was eerily quiet within the walls, and I felt as though I was intruding on somebody’s house. The weeds, the dandelions, the nettles, all stopped what they were doing to look up. I don’t know why, but I started crying.
Just as I’d felt sad for the bluebottle, I felt sad for the castle, but realistically, I think I felt those things because I was mostly sad for myself. I felt like I could hear the castle moan and whine as it was left to stand here, falling apart, while the trees around it continued to grow. I moved over to one of the walls, the stones rough and so large I could imagine the strength of the hands that had carried, or which had been forced to carry, them. I hunkered down in the corner, pressed my ear against the stone and closed my eyes. I don’t know what I was listening for, I don’t really know what I was doing, trying to comfort a wall, but it’s what I did anyway.
If I’d told Zoey and Laura what I’d done they’d have carted me off to the fashion house of bumless smocks for sure, but I felt like I’d connected to the building in some way. I don’t know, maybe because I’d lost my home and I felt that I had nothing that was truly mine, coming across this building that wasn’t anybody’s, I wanted to make it mine. Or maybe it was just that when people are lonely they cling to anything not to feel that way any more. For me, that anything was the castle.
I don’t know how long I stayed there but eventually the sun was going down behind the trees, casting a sprinkle of sparkling light on the ruin every time the trees swished from side to side. I watched it for a while and then I realised the surroundings were heading towards dusk. It must have been around ten p.m.
My legs were stiff from being in the same position for so long as I slowly rose to my feet. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something move. A shadow. A figure. Not an animal, yet it darted. I wasn’t sure. Not wanting whatever or whoever it was to come up behind me, I kept my back to the castle entrance and moved backwards quickly. I heard another noise—an owl or something squawked and I jumped out of my skin and got ready to run. Unable to see the ground underneath the growth, I tripped over a rock and fell backwards to the ground. I smacked my head, whimpered, and I could hear the panic in my voice as I fell into the disgusting overgrowth with God knows what living in it. My vision blurred a little, black spots appearing in place of the line of the ruined roof against the indigo sky. I climbed to my feet, used my hands to push myself up, scraped against the pebbles and rocks, which cut into my skin, and I didn’t look back as I ran as fast as my Uggs would take me. It felt like for ever until the house came into sight, as though the road and the trees were conspiring to keep me running on a treadmill.
Finally the house came into view. Barbara’s SUV was gone from outside and I knew then that I’d been completely cut off. The drawbridge had been lifted. Almost as soon as the house came into sight the front door opened and Rosaleen stood there watching me, as though she had been standing there waiting since the moment I left.
‘Come in, come in,’ she said with urgency in her voice.
I finally stepped over the threshold and into my new life, and the beginning began. My once-clean pink Uggs were now filthy from the castle walk, as I stepped onto the flagstoned hallway. The house was deathly quiet.
‘Let’s have a look at you,’ Rosaleen said, holding my wrists tightly, and took a step back to give me the once-over. But her once-over went twice, then three times…I tugged away from her and her grip instinctively tightened, but then as though she realised what she’d done, or she saw how my face changed, she finally let go.
Her voice was sweeter. ‘I’ll darn those for you. Leave them in the basket by the armchair in the sitting room.’
‘They’re jeans. They’re supposed to be like this.’ I looked down at my ripped jeans, so torn apart that there was hardly any denim visible at all. Underneath my jeans my leopard-print tights were revealed, which was the idea. ‘They’re not supposed to be dirty, though.’
‘Oh. Well, you can leave them in the basket in the kitchen.’
‘You have a lot of baskets.’
I’m not sure if what I’d said was a joke or a smart comment but she missed it either way.
‘Okay. Well, I’m going to my room…’ I waited for her to guide me but she just stared at me. ‘Where is it?’
‘What about a cuppa? I made an apple tart.’ Her tone was almost pleading.
‘Eh, no, thanks, I’m not very hungry.’ I felt my stomach grumble in response and hoped she wouldn’t hear it.
‘Of course. Of course you’re not,’ she berated herself silently.
‘Which way is my room?’
‘Up the stairs, the second door on the left. Your mum is the last room on the right.’ ‘Okay I’ll go see her.’ I began to make my way upstairs. ‘No, child,’ Rosaleen said quickly. ‘Leave her. She’s resting.’
‘I’d just like to say good night to her,’ I smiled tightly.
‘No, no, you must leave her,’ she said firmly.
I swallowed. ‘Okay.’
I slowly backed away and went upstairs, each step creaking under my foot. From the landing I could still see the hallway, Rosaleen was standing there watching me. I smiled tightly and went into my room, closed the door firmly behind me and leaned against it, my heart pounding.
I stayed in there for five minutes, barely taking in the room, knowing I had enough time ahead of me to come to terms with my new space, but first I needed to see my mother. When I opened the door again slowly, I peeped my head out and looked down from the landing balcony and into the hallway. Rosaleen was gone. I opened the door wider and stepped outside. I jumped. There she was, standing outside Mum’s bedroom door, like a guard dog.
‘I just checked on her,’ she whispered, her green eyes glowing. ‘She’s sleeping. You best go and get some rest now.’
I hate being told what to do. I used to never do what I was told, but something about Rosaleen’s voice, about the look in her eye, about the feel of the house and the way she was standing, told me that I wasn’t in control now. I went back into my room and closed the door, without another word.
Later that night, when inside the house and outside were like woollen opaque tights—so thick with darkness I couldn’t make out any shapes—I woke up thinking there was someone in the room. I heard breathing above my bed and smelled that familiar soapy lavender smell, and so I scrunched my eyes shut and pretended to be asleep. I don’t know how long Rosaleen stayed there watching me but it felt like an eternity. Even after I heard her leave the room and the door gently clicked I kept my eyes tightly shut, my heart pounding so loudly I was afraid she would hear it, until I eventually fell asleep.
I awoke the next morning at around six a.m to the sound of the birds calling to one another. Their constant whistling and chatter made me feel as though the house had been air-lifted in the middle of the night and transported to bird world. Their selfish noisy banter reminded me of the builders we’d had working on our swimming pool, who went about their business loudly and cockily, as though we weren’t still living in the house. There was one guy, Steve, who kept trying to get a look at me in my bedroom while I was getting dressed. So one morning I really gave him something to look at. Don’t get the wrong impression; I took three hairpieces and pinned them to my bikini—you can guess where—and I took off my bathrobe and paraded around my room like Chewbacca, pretending I didn’t know he was looking. He never looked again after that, but a few of the others used to stare at me whenever I passed by, so I can only assume he told them, dirty little bugger. Well there would be no such games here, unless I wanted to send a red squirrel flying off his branch in shock.
The blue and white checked curtains did little to keep out the sunlight. The room was fully lit like a bar at closing time; all blemishes, drunkards and cheaters revealed. I lay in bed, wide awake, and stared at the room that was now my room. It didn’t seem very my; I wondered if it would ever feel my. It was a simple room, surprisingly warm. Not just from the morning sun streaming into the room, but it was cosy warm, in an authentic Laura Ashley way and though I usually hated all that twee stuff, it worked here. Where it didn’t work was in my friend Zoey’s bedroom, which her mum decorated to suit a ten-year-old, in an obvious attempt to convince herself her daughter was sweet and innocent. That room was the equivalent of her sticking her daughter into a pickle jar. It was never going to work. It wasn’t so much that the lid came off when her mother wasn’t looking, but more that Zoey liked pickles a little too much.
The bedrooms were in the eaves of the house, the ceilings sloping towards the windows. There was a cracked white-painted wooden chair in one corner with an old blue and white checked pillow on it. The walls were a pale blue, but didn’t feel cold. There was a white-painted free-standing wardrobe that was just big enough to hold my underwear. My bed had a metal frame, white linen and a blue floral duvet cover with a duck-egg-blue cashmere throw at the end. Above the door to my room hung a simple St Bridget’s cross. On the windowsill was a vase of fresh wildflowers—lavender, bluebells, other things I couldn’t recognise. Rosaleen had gone to a lot of trouble.
There was a noise coming from downstairs. Plates were clanging, water running, a kettle whistled, there was the sizzle of food on a pan and eventually the smell of a fry drifted upstairs and into my room. I realised that I hadn’t eaten since yesterday lunchtime in Barbara’s, when Lulu had made us divine sashimi. I also hadn’t been to the toilet yet and so my bladder and stomach conspired to get me out of bed. Just as I thought of it, through the paper-thin walls, I heard the door next to my room close and lock. I heard the toilet lid lift and then the trickle of urine as it splashed against the bottom of the bowl. It was falling from a height, so unless Rosaleen pissed while on stilts, it was Arthur.
Judging by the sounds coming from both the kitchen and the bathroom, I guessed my mother wasn’t in either room. Now would be my chance to see her. I stepped into my pink Uggs, wrapped the duck-egg-blue blanket around my shoulders and sneaked down the hall to Mum’s room.
Despite my lightness of foot, the floorboards creaked with every step. Hearing the toilet flush in the bathroom, I ran down the hall and entered Mum’s room without knocking. I don’t know what I expected but I suppose something closer to the sight that had greeted me each morning over the previous two weeks. That sight was a dark cave-like room, and buried somewhere beneath the duvet would be Mum. But I was pleasantly surprised that morning. Her room was even brighter than mine—a kind of buttery yellow that was fresh and clean. Her vase on the windowsill was filled with buttercups and dandelions, long green grasses all tied together in yellow ribbon. Her room must have been directly above the living room as there was an open fireplace along the wall with a photograph of the Pope above it, which made me shudder. Not the Pope—I’d rather Zac Efron were on my wall—it was the fire that made me uncomfortable. I’ve just never liked them. The fireplace had white moulding with black inside, and it looked as though it had had plenty of use, which I thought was weird for a spare bedroom. They must have had a lot of guests, though they didn’t strike me as the sociable entertaining type. Then I noticed the en suite and realised Rosaleen and Arthur must have given Mum their bedroom.
Mum was sitting in a white rocking chair, not rocking, and she was facing the window, which looked out over the back garden. Her hair was pinned back neatly, she was dressed in an apricot-coloured floaty silk robe and she was wearing the same pink lipstick she’d had on since the day of Dad’s funeral. She wore a small smile, so tiny, but it was there, and she looked like she was intently studying yesterday. When I came near her, she looked up and her smile grew.
‘Good morning, Mum.’ I gave her a kiss on her forehead and sat down beside her on the edge of her already made bed. ‘Did you sleep well?’
‘Yes, thank you,’ she said happily, and my heart lifted.
‘I did too,’ I realised as I spoke. ‘It’s so quiet here, isn’t it?’ I decided not to mention anything about Rosaleen being in my bedroom last night, in case I’d dreamed it. It would be so embarrassing to accuse somebody of that, at least until I had further evidence.
‘Yes, it is,’ Mum said again.
We sat together looking out into the back garden. In the middle of the one-acre garden stood an oak tree, its branches veering out in all directions, just begging to be climbed. A beautiful tree, it rose up to the sky grandly, filled with green. It was sturdy and solid and I understood why Mum kept looking at it. It was safe and secure, and if it had stood there for a few hundred years, you could trust it was going to stay there for a bit longer. Stability in our rocky lives right now. A robin hopped from one branch to the other, seeming excited to have the entire tree to itself, like a child who was playing musical chairs alone. That was something I’d never have looked at before either: a tree with a bird. And even if I’d seen it, I’d never have compared it to a child who was playing musical chairs alone. Zoey and Laura would seriously have a problem with me. I was beginning to have problems with me. Thinking of them gave me pangs for home.
‘I don’t like it here, Mum,’ I finally said, and realised my voice shook and I was close to tears. ‘Can’t we stay in Dublin? With friends?’
Mum looked at me and smiled warmly. ‘Oh, we’ll be okay here. It will all be okay.’
I was so relieved to hear her say that, to hear the strength, the confidence, the leadership I needed.
‘But how long are we going to stay here? What’s our plan? Where am I going to school in September? Can I still go to St Mary’s?’
Mum looked away from me then, keeping her smile but gazing out of the window. ‘We’ll be okay here. It will all be okay.’
‘I know, Mum,’ I said, getting frustrated but trying to keep my tone soft. ‘You just said that, but for how long?’
She was quiet.
‘Mum?’ My tone hardened.
‘We’ll be okay here,’ she repeated. ‘It will all be okay.’
I’m a good person, but only when I want to be, and so I leaned up close to her ear and just as I was about to say something so truly horrible that I can’t even write it, there was a light knock on the door and it was quickly opened by Rosaleen.
‘There you both are,’ she said, as though she’d been searching high and low for us.
I quickly moved my mouth away from Mum’s ear and sat back down on the bed. Rosaleen stared at me as though she could read my mind. Then her face softened and she entered the room with a silver breakfast tray in her hand, wearing a new tea dress that exposed her flesh-coloured slip down by her knees.
‘Now, Jennifer, I hope you had a lovely rest last night.’
‘Yes, lovely.’ Mum looked at her and smiled, and I felt so angry at her for fooling everybody else when she wasn’t fooling me.
‘That’s great so. I’ve made you some breakfast, just a few little bites to keep you going…’ Rosaleen continued nattering like that as she moved around the room, pulling furniture, dragging chairs, plumping pillows, while I watched her.
A few bites, she’d said. A few bites for a few hundred people. The tray was loaded with food. Slices of fruit, cereal, a plate piled with toast, two boiled eggs, a little bowl of what looked like honey, another bowl of strawberry jam and another of marmalade. Also on the tray was a teapot, a jug of milk, a bowl of sugar, all sorts of cutlery and napkins. For somebody who normally just had a breakfast bar and an espresso in the morning, and only because she felt she had to, Mum had a task on her hands.
‘Lovely,’ Mum said, addressing the tray before her on a little wooden table and not looking at Rosaleen at all. ‘Thank you.’
I wondered then if Mum knew that what had been placed in front of her was to be eaten by her, and wasn’t just a work of art.
‘You’re very welcome. Now is there anything else you want at all?’
‘Her house back, the love of her life back…’ I said, sarcastically. I didn’t aim the joke at Rosaleen, her being the butt of that particular comment wasn’t the intention at all. I was just letting off steam, generally. But I think Rosaleen took it personally. She looked shaken and—oh I don’t know—if she was hurt, embarrassed or angry. She looked at Mum to make sure she wouldn’t be broken by my words.
‘Don’t worry, she can’t hear me,’ I said, bored and examining the split ends of my dark brown hair. I pretended I wasn’t bothered but really my comments were causing my heart to beat wildly in my chest.
‘Of course she can hear you, child,’ Rosaleen half-scolded me while continuing to move about the room fixing things, wiping things, adjusting things.
‘You think?’ I raised an eyebrow. ‘What do you think, Mum? Will we be okay here?’
Mum looked up at me and smiled. ‘Of course we’ll be okay.’
I joined in on her second sentence, imitating Mum’s hauntingly chirpy voice, so that we spoke in perfect unison, which I think chilled Rosaleen. It definitely chilled me as we said, ‘It will all be okay.’
Rosaleen stopped dusting to watch me.
‘That’s right, Mum. It will all be okay.’ My voice trembled. I decided to go a step further. ‘And look at the elephant in the bedroom, isn’t that nice?’
Mum stared at the tree in the garden, the same small smile on her pink lips, ‘Yes. That’s nice.’
‘I thought you’d think so.’ I swallowed hard, trying not to cry as I looked to Rosaleen. I was supposed to feel satisfaction, but I didn’t, I just felt more lost. Up to that point it was all in my head that Mum wasn’t right. Now I’d proven it and I didn’t like it.
Perhaps now Mum would be sent to a therapist or a counsellor and get herself fixed so that we could start moving on with our chemical trail.
‘Your breakfast is on the table,’ Rosaleen simply said, turned her back on me, and left the room.
And that is how the Goodwin problems were always fixed. Fix them on the surface but don’t go to the root, always ignoring the elephant in the room. I think that morning was when I realised I’d grown up with an elephant in every room. It was practically our family pet.
I took my time getting dressed, knowing that there was very little else I was going to be able to do that day. I stood shivering in the avocado-coloured bath as the hot water trickled down with all the power of baby drool, and I longed for my pink iridescent mosaic-tiled wet room with six power-shower jets and plasma in the wall.
By the time I had managed to wash out all of the shampoo—I couldn’t be bothered battling with conditioner—dried my hair and arrived downstairs for breakfast, Arthur was scraping the last of the food from his plate. I wondered if Rosaleen had told him about what happened in Mum’s bedroom. Perhaps not because if he was in anyway a decent brother, he’d be currently doing something about it. I don’t think tipping the base of a tea cup with his oversized nose was going to fix much.
‘Morning, Arthur,’ I said.
‘Morning,’ he said, into the bottom of his tea cup.
Rosaleen, the busy domestic bee, immediately jumped into action and came at me with giant oven gloves on her hands.
I lightly boxed each of her hands. She didn’t get the joke. Without a word, or a twitch, or a movement of any kind in Arthur’s face, I sensed he got it.
‘I’ll just have cereal, please, Rosaleen,’ I said, looking around. ‘I’ll get it, if you tell me where it is.’ I started opening the cupboards, trying to find the cereal, then had to take a step back when I came across a double cupboard filled from top to bottom with jars of honey. There must have been over a hundred jars.
‘Whoa.’ I stepped back from the opened cupboards. ‘Have you got, like, honey OCD?’
Rosaleen looked confused, but smiled and handed me a cup of tea. ‘Sit yourself down there, I’ll bring you your breakfast. Sister Ignatius gives the honey to me,’ she smiled.
Unfortunately I was taking a sip of tea when she said that and I choked on it as I started laughing. Tea came spurting out my nose. Arthur handed me a napkin, and looked at me with amusement.
‘You’ve a sister called Ignatius?’ I laughed loudly. ‘She’s totally got a man’s name. Is she a tranny?’ I shook my head, still giggling.
‘A tranny?’ Rosaleen asked, forehead crumpled.
I burst out laughing, then stopped abruptly when her smile immediately faded, she closed the kitchen cabinets and went to the aga for my breakfast. She placed a plate piled high with bacon, sausages, eggs, beans, pudding and mushrooms in the middle of the table. I hoped her sister Ignatius was going to join me for breakfast because there was no way I was going to finish this alone. Then she disappeared, flitted about behind me, and came back with a plate piled high with toast.
‘Oh, no, that’s okay. I don’t eat carbs,’ I said as politely as I could.
‘Carbs?’ Rosaleen asked.
‘Carbohydrates,’ I explained. ‘They bloat me.’
Arthur placed his cup on the saucer and looked out at me from under his bushy eyebrows.
‘Arthur, you don’t look anything like Mum at all.’
Rosaleen dropped a jar of honey on the floor tiles, which made me and Arthur jump and turn around. Surprisingly, it didn’t smash. Rosaleen, at top speed, continued on and placed jam, honey and marmalade before me and a plate of scones.
‘You’re a growing girl, you need your food.’
‘The only growing I want right now is here.’ I gestured at my 34B chest. ‘And unless I stuff my bra with black and white pudding, this breakfast isn’t going to make that happen.’
It was Arthur’s turn to choke on his tea. Not wanting to insult them any further, I took a slice of bacon, a sausage and a tomato.
‘Go on, have more,’ Rosaleen said, watching my plate.
I looked at Arthur in horror.
‘Give her time to eat that,’ Arthur said quietly, getting to his feet with his plates in his hands.
‘Leave that down.’ Rosaleen fussed around him, and I felt like grabbing a fly-swatter and attacking her. ‘You get on now to work.’
‘Arthur, does anybody work in the castle?’
‘The ruin?’ Rosaleen asked.
‘The castle,’ I responded, and immediately felt defensive of it. If we were going to start name-calling we may as well start with Mum. She was clearly a broken woman yet we weren’t referring to her as the ruin. She was still a woman. The castle was not as it had been, but it was still a castle. I have no idea where that belief had come from but it had arrived overnight and I knew from then on, I was never going to call it a ruin.
‘Why do you ask?’ Arthur said, slipping his arms into a lumberjack shirt and then putting on a padded vest over it.
‘I was taking a look around there yesterday and just thought I saw something. No big deal,’ I said quickly, eating and hoping that wouldn’t make them stop me from going there again.
‘Could have been a rat,’ Rosaleen said, looking at Arthur.
‘Wow, I really feel better now.’ I looked to Arthur for more but he was silent.
‘You shouldn’t go wandering about there on your own,’ Rosaleen said, pushing the plate of food closer to me.
Neither of them said anything.
‘Right,’ I said, ignoring the breakfast. ‘That’s settled. It was a giant, human-sized rat. So if I can’t go there, what’s there to do around here?’ I asked.
There was silence. ‘In what way?’ Rosaleen finally asked, seeming afraid.
‘Like, for me to do. What is there? Are there shops? Clothes shops? Coffee shops? Anything nearby?’
‘Nearest town is fifteen minutes,’ Rosaleen replied.
‘Cool. I’ll walk there after breakfast. Work this off,’ I smiled, and bit into a sausage.
Rosaleen smiled happily and leaned her chin on her hand as she watched me.
‘So which way is it?’ I asked, swallowed the sausage and opened my mouth to show Rosaleen it was gone.
‘Which way is what?’ She got the hint and stopped watching.
‘The town. I go out the gates and turn left or right?’
‘Oh, no, you can’t walk it. It’s fifteen minutes in the car. Arthur will drive you. Where do you need to go?’
‘Well, nowhere in particular. I just wanted to have a look round.’
‘Arthur will drive you and collect you when you’re ready.’
‘How long will you be?’ Arthur asked, zipping up his vest.
‘I don’t know,’ I replied, looking from one to the other, feeling frustrated.
‘Twenty minutes? An hour? If it’s a short time he can wait there for you,’ Rosaleen added.
‘I don’t know how long I’ll be. How can I? I don’t know what’s in the town, or what there is for me to do.’
They looked at me blankly.
‘I’ll just hop on a bus or something and come back when I’m ready.’
Rosaleen looked at Arthur nervously. ‘There’s no buses along this way.’
‘What?’ my jaw dropped. ‘How are you supposed to get anywhere?’
‘Drive,’ Arthur responded.
‘But I can’t drive.’
‘Arthur will drive you,’ Rosaleen repeated. ‘Or he’ll pick up whatever it is that you need. Have you anything in mind? Arthur will get it, won’t you, Arthur?’
‘What is it you need?’ Rosaleen asked eagerly, leaning forward.
‘Tampons,’ I spat out, feeling so frustrated now.
I just don’t know why I do it.
Well, I do know. They were both annoying me. I was used to so much freedom at home, not the Spanish Inquisition. I was used to coming and going whenever I pleased, at my own pace, for however long I liked. Even my own parents never asked me so many questions.
They were quiet.
I shoved another bit of sausage into my mouth.
Rosaleen fiddled with the doily underneath the scones. Arthur was hovering near the door waiting with baited breath to hear whether he was being sent out on a tampon run or not. I felt it was my duty to clear the air.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said, calming down. ‘I’ll have a look around here today. Maybe I’ll go tomorrow.’ Something to look forward to.
‘I’ll be off then.’ Arthur nodded to Rosaleen.
She jumped up out of her chair as though a finger had poked up through the straw. ‘Don’t forget your flask.’ She hurried about the kitchen as though there was a time bomb. ‘Here you go.’ She handed him a flask and a lunchbox.
I couldn’t help but smile, watching that. It should have been weird, her treating him like a child going off to school, but it wasn’t. It was nice.
‘Do you want some of this for your lunchbox?’ I asked, pointing at the plate of food before me. ‘There’s no way in the world I’m going to eat it.’
I meant that comment to be nice. I meant that I couldn’t eat it because of the quantity, not because of the taste, but it came out wrong. Or it came out right but was taken up wrong. I don’t know. Anyway, I didn’t want to waste the food. I wanted to share it with Arthur for his cute little lunchbox, but it was as though I’d punched Rosaleen in the stomach again.
‘Ara go on, I’ll have some of it so,’ Arthur said, and I felt like he was saying it just to make Rosaleen happy.
Rosaleen’s cheeks pinked as she fussed around in a drawer for another Tupperware box.
‘It’s really lovely, Rosaleen, honestly, but I just don’t eat this much breakfast usually.’ I couldn’t believe such an issue was being made of the breakfast.
‘Of course, of course,’ she nodded emphatically as though she was so stupid not to have known this. She scooped it up and put it into the little plastic tub. And then Arthur was gone.
While I was still sitting at the table trying to get through the three thousand slices of toast that could easily have been used to rebuild the castle, Rosaleen collected the tray from Mum’s room. The food hadn’t been touched. Head down, Rosaleen brought it straight to the bin and started scraping it into a bag. After the earlier scene, I knew this would have hurt her.
‘We’re just not breakfast people,’ I explained, as gently as I could. ‘Mum usually grabs a breakfast bar and an espresso in the morning.’
Rosaleen straightened up and turned around, ears alert to food talk. ‘A breakfast bar?’
‘You know, one of those bars made of cereal and raisins and yoghurt and things.’
‘Like this?’ She showed me a bowl of cereal and raisins and a little bowl of yoghurt.
‘Yes, but…in a bar.’
‘But what’s the difference?’
‘Well, you bite into the bar.’
‘It’s faster. You can eat it on the go.’ I tried to explain further. ‘While you’re driving to work or running out the door, you know?’
‘But what kind of breakfast is that at all? A bar in a car?’
I tried so hard not to laugh at that. ‘It’s just, you know, to…save time in the morning.’
She looked at me like I’d ten heads, then went quiet as she cleaned the kitchen.
‘What do you think of Mum?’ I asked after a long silence.
Rosaleen kept cleaning the counters with her back to me.
‘Rosaleen? What do you think about the way my mum’s behaving?’
‘She’s grieving, child,’ she said quickly.
‘I don’t think that’s the proper way to grieve, do you? Thinking an elephant is in the room?’
‘Ah, she didn’t hear you right,’ she said lightly.’ Her head is elsewhere, is all.’
‘It’s in cuckoo land, is where,’ I mumbled.
Because people keep throwing this ‘grieving’ comment at me, as if I was born yesterday and never knew that it was difficult to lose a person you spent every day of your life with for the past twenty years, I’ve since read up a lot on grief. What I’ve learned is that there’s no proper way to grieve, no wrong or right way. I don’t know if I agree with that. I think Mum’s grief is the wrong way. The word grief comes from the old French word grÈve which means heavy burden. The idea is that grief weighs you down with sorrow and all the other emotions. I feel that way: heavier, like I have to drag myself around, everything is an effort, is dark and crap. It’s as though my head is continually filled with thoughts I’d never had before, which gives me a headache. But Mum…?
Mum seems lighter. Grief doesn’t seem to be weighing her down at all. Instead, it feels like she’s flying away, like she’s halfway in the air and nobody else cares or notices, and I’m the only one standing beneath her, at her ankles, trying to pull her back down.
The kitchen had been cleared and cleaned; scrubbed to within an inch of its life, and the only thing left that wasn’t stacked away on a shelf somewhere was me.
I had never seen a woman clean with such vigour, with such purpose, as if her life depended on it. Rosaleen rolled up her sleeves and sweated, biceps and triceps astonishingly well formed, as she scrubbed, wiping away every trace of life having ever existed in the place. So I sat watching her in fascination, and I admit with a hint of patronising pity too, at the unnecessary act of such intense polishing and cleaning.
She left the house carrying a parcel of freshly baked brown bread that smelled so good it sent my taste buds and my already full stomach into spasms. I watched her from the front living-room window power-walking across the road, not an inch of femininity about her, to the bungalow. I waited by the window, intrigued to see who would answer the door, but she went round the back and spoiled my fun.
I took the opportunity to wander around the house without Rosaleen breathing down my neck and explaining the history behind everything I laid my eyes on as she’d done all morning.
‘Oh, that’s the cabinet. Oak, it is. A tree came down hard one winter, thunder and lightning, we’d no electricity for days. Arthur couldn’t rescue it—the tree that is, not the electricity; we got that back.’ Nervous giggle. ‘He made that cabinet out of it. Great for storing things in.’
‘That could be a good little business for Arthur.’
‘Oh no,’ Rosaleen looked at me as though I’d just blasphemed. ‘It’s a hobby, not a money-making scheme.’
‘It’s not a scheme, it’s a business. There’s nothing wrong with that,’ I explained.
Rosaleen tut-tutted at this.
Hearing myself, I sounded like my dad, and even though I had always hated this about him—his desire to turn everything into a business—it gave me a nice warm feeling. As a child if I brought home paintings from school he’d think I could suddenly be an artist, but only an artist who could demand millions for my works. If I argued a point strongly, I was suddenly a lawyer, but only a lawyer who demanded hundreds per hour. I had a good singing voice and suddenly I was going to record in his friend’s studio and be the next big thing. It wasn’t just me he did that with, it was everything around him. For him life was full of opportunities, and I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing, but I think he wanted to grab them for all the wrong reasons. He wasn’t passionate about art, he didn’t care about lawyers helping people, he didn’t even care about my singing voice. It was all for more money. And so I suppose it was fitting that it was the loss of all his money that killed him in the end. The pills and the whisky were just the nails in the coffin.
‘Is it that photo you’ve got your eye on?’ Rosaleen would continue as my eyes roamed the room. ‘He took that when we visited the Giant’s Causeway. It rained the entire day and we got a puncture on the way up.’
And on she went.
‘I see you’re looking at the curtains. They need a bit of a clean. I’ll take them down tomorrow and do them. I bought the fabric from a woman doing door-to-door. I never usually but she was a foreign woman, hadn’t much English, or money, and had all this fabric. I like the flower in it. I think it matches the cushion there, what do you think? I’ve lots left in the garage down the back.’
Then I looked to the garage down the back and she’d say, ‘Arthur built that himself. Wasn’t here when I moved in.’
It struck me as odd phrasing. When I moved in. ‘Who lived here before?’
Rosaleen looked at me then, with those wide curious eyes she’d previously reserved for when I was eating. She didn’t say anything. She does that a lot, at the most random times. Dropping in and out of our conversations with looks and pauses as though she loses signal on her brain connection.
She freaked me out so much that I looked away, apparently down at the rug that was given to her by somebody for something, I don’t know…But that morning when I was alone and didn’t have her nervous jabbering interfering in my thoughts, I was able to look around properly.
The living room was cosy, I suppose, if not a little old. Well, a lot old, not like my house, which is—was—modern and clean, crisp lines and everything symmetrical. This room had things all over the place. Art that didn’t match the couches, funny-looking ornaments, tables and chairs with spindly legs and animal claws, two couches with totally different fabrics—one blue and ivory floral, the other as if a cat had thrown up on it—and a coffee table that doubled as a chessboard. The floor felt like it was uneven, sloping from the fireplace to the bookshelves, making me feel a little seasick. The busiest area seemed to be around the fireplace; an open fire that made me shudder with its contraptions that looked like something out of a medieval torture chamber; wrought-iron pokers with animal heads, coal shovels of different sizes, an ancient bellows, a black cast-iron fireguard with an animal of some sort emblazoned on the front. I turned my back on the fire and concentrated on the floor-to-ceiling bookcase, with a ladder, running the length of the wall. It was filled with books, photos, tins, keepsake boxes, useless trinkets, that kind of thing. Most of the books were on gardening and cooking, very specific, not at all to my taste. They were old and well-read, some ripped apart, some missing their covers, yellowing pages, and some that looked water damaged, but not a speck of dust was to be seen. There was a huge red-bound book, which looked so ancient the pages were black with the red dye running into them. It was Lloyd’s Register of Shipping 1919-1920 Volume 2. Inside were hundreds of pages of the alphabetically arranged names of vessels, showing the dead weight and capacities of holds and permanent bunkers. I slid it back into place and wiped my hands on my clothes, not wanting the bacteria of 1919 to infest me. Another book was about faiths of the world, which had on the cover a gold emblem of a cross dug into the ground with a snake twisted around it. Then beside it was a book on greek cooking, though I doubted very much that there’d be a place for a souvlaki next to Rosaleen’s Aga. The next book was The Complete Book of the Horse, though it mustn’t have been, for there were twelve more on the subject.
I’d read only the first chapter of the book Fiona gave me at my dad’s funeral and already that was the most I’d read in a year, so the books stuffed onto the shelves didn’t particularly interest me. What did interest me was a photo album filed alongside them all. It was in the large book section, beside the dictionaries, encyclopaedia, world atlas and that kind of thing. An old-fashioned album, it had the look of a printed book, or at least its spine had. It had a red velvet cover and was embossed by a frame of gold, and I took it out and ran my finger across the front, leaving a darkened trail on the velvet. I curled up in the leather-studded armchair, looking forward to getting lost in somebody else’s memories. As soon as I opened the first page, the doorbell rang, long and shrill. It broke the silence and made me jump.
I waited, almost expected Rosaleen to come sprinting across the road with her teadress hitched up to her thighs, revealing hamstrings so tight Jimi Hendrix could play on them. But she didn’t. Instead there was silence. There wasn’t a peep upstairs from Mum. The doorbell rang again and so I placed the photo album down on the table, and made my way to the front door, the house feeling a little more like home as I did so.
Through the obscure stained glass, I could tell it was a man. When I opened the door, I saw it was a gorgeous man. Early twenties, I guessed, dark brown hair gelled straight up in the front, just like his polo-shirt collar. He could well be a rugby boy. He looked me up and down, and smiled.
‘Hi,’ he said, and his smile revealed perfectly straight white teeth. He had stubble all around his jaw, his eyes were bright blue. In his hand was a clipboard with a chart attached.
‘Hi,’ I said, arching my back as I leaned in against the door.
‘Sir Ignatius?’ he asked.
I smiled. ‘Not I.’
‘Is there a Sir Ignatius Power in this house?’
‘Not at the moment. He’s out fox hunting with Lord Casper.’
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘When will he be back?’
‘After he’s caught the fox, I assume.’
‘Hmm…’ he nodded slowly and looked about him. ‘Are the foxes fast around here?’
‘You’re obviously not from around here. Everybody knows about the foxes here.’
‘Hmm. Indeed I’m not.’
I bit my lip and tried not to smile.
‘So he might be a long time?’ he smiled, sensing I was waning.
‘He might be a very long time.’
He leaned against the porch pillar and stared at me.
‘What?’ I said defensively, feeling like I was melting under his gaze.
‘Does he live anywhere around here, at all?’
‘Definitely not behind these gates.’
‘What are you then?’
‘I’m a Goodwin.’
‘I’m sure you are, but what’s your surname?’
I tried not to laugh but couldn’t help it.
‘Cheesy, I know, sorry,’ he apologised good-heartedly, then looked confused as he consulted his chart and scratched his head, making it even more tousled.
I looked over his shoulder and saw a white bus, with ‘The Travelling Library’ emblazoned across the side.
He finally looked up from his clipboard. ‘Okay then, I’m definitely lost. There’s no Goodwin on this list.’
‘Oh, it wouldn’t be under my name.’ Byrne was my mother’s maiden name, my uncle Arthur’s surname and the name this house would be under. Arthur and Rosaleen Byrne. Jennifer Byrne—it didn’t sound right. It felt like my mum should always have been a Goodwin.
‘So this must be the Kilsaney residence?’ he said hopefully, looking up from his chart.
‘Ah, the Kilsaneys,’ I said, and he looked relieved. ‘They’re the next house on the left, just through the trees,’ I smiled.
‘Great, thank you. I’ve never been around here before. I’m an hour late. What are they like, the Kilsaneys?’ He scrunched up his nose. ‘Will they give me shit?’
I shrugged. ‘They don’t say much. But don’t worry, they love books.’
‘Good. Do you want me to stop here on the way back out so you can have a look at the books?’
I closed the door and burst out laughing. I waited with excitement for him to return, butterflies fluttering around my heart and stomach as though I was a child playing hide-and-seek. I hadn’t felt like this for at least a month. Something had been reopened inside me. Less than a minute later, I heard the bus returning. It stopped outside the house and I opened the door. He was getting out of the bus, a big smile on his face. When he looked up he caught my eye and shook his head.
‘Kilsaneys not home?’ I asked.
He laughed, coming towards me, thankfully not angry but amused. ‘They decided they didn’t want any books as it seems, along with the second floor and most of their walls, and the actual roof of their home, their bookshelf went missing.’
‘Very funny, Miss Goodwin.’
‘It’s Ms, thank you very much.’
‘I’m Marcus.’ He held out his hand and I shook it.
‘Beautiful name,’ he said gently. He leaned against the wooden porch pillar. ‘So seriously, do you know where this Sir Ignatius Power of the Sisters of Mercy lives?’
‘Hold on, let me see that.’ I grabbed the clipboard from him. ‘That’s not “Sir”. That’s “Sr”. Sister,’ I said slowly. ‘You muppet.’ I tapped him on the head with it. ‘He’s a nun.’ Not a transvestite, after all.
‘Oh.’ He started laughing and grabbed the end of his board. I held on tight. He pulled harder and dragged me out onto the porch. That close up he was even cuter. ‘So is that you, Sister?’ he asked. ‘Have you received your calling?’
‘The only thing I get called for is dinner.’
He laughed. ‘So, who is she?’
‘You’re intent on making me get lost, aren’t you?’
‘Well, I just got here yesterday so I’m as lost as you are.’
I didn’t smile when I said that and he didn’t smile back either. He got it.
‘Well, for your sake, I really hope that’s not true.’ He looked up at the house. ‘You live here?’
‘You don’t even know where you live?’
‘You’re a strange man who travels in a bus filled with books. Do you think I’m going to tell you where I live? I’ve heard about your kind,’ I said, walking away from the house and towards the bus.
‘Oh, yeah?’ He followed me.
‘There was a guy like you who lured children into his bus tempting them with lollipops, then when they got inside, he locked them in and drove off.’
‘Oh, I heard about him,’ he said, his eyes lighting up. ‘Long greasy black hair, big nose, pale skin, danced around in tight trousers and sang a lot. Also had a penchant for toy boxes?’
‘That’s the one. Friend of yours?’
‘Here,’ he rooted inside his top pocket and dug out his ID. ‘You’re right, I should have shown this earlier. It’s a public library, licensed and everything. All official. So I promise I won’t trap you inside.’
Unless I asked him to. I studied the ID card. ‘Marcus Sandhurst.’
‘That is I. Want to look at the books?’ He held his arm out to the bus. ‘Your chariot awaits.’
I looked around, not a soul nearby, including Mum. The bungalow also appeared dead. With nothing to lose, I climbed aboard, and as I did, Marcus sang, ‘Children,’ in the Child-Catcher’s voice, and cackled. I laughed too.
Inside, both walls were lined with hundreds of books. Divided into various categories and I ran my finger along them, not really reading the titles, a little on guard at being in the bus with a strange man. I think Marcus sensed this because he took a few steps back from me, gave me plenty of space, and stood by the open door instead.
‘So what’s your favourite book?’ I asked.
‘That’s a film.’
‘Based on a book,’ he said.
‘No, it’s not. What’s your favourite book?’
‘Coldplay,’ he responded. ‘Pizza…I don’t know.’
‘Okay,’ I laughed, ‘so you don’t read.’
‘Nope.’ He sat up on a ledge. ‘But I’m hoping that this experience will positively change me for the better and that I will be converted to a reader.’ He spoke lazily, his voice so lacklustre and unconvincing it was as though he was repeating something he’d been told himself.
I studied him. ‘So what happened, Daddy asked his friend to give you a job?’
His jaw line hardened and he was silent for a while, and I felt really bad, like I should take back the comment. I don’t even know why I said that. I don’t even know where that came from. I just had a weird feeling that I must have been close. I think maybe I recognised a part of me in him.
‘Sorry, that wasn’t funny,’ I apologised. ‘So what happens here?’ I said, trying to break the tension. ‘You travel around to people’s houses and give them books?’
‘It’s the same as a library,’ Marcus said, still a little cool with me. ‘People join up, receive membership cards and that allows them to take out books. I go to the towns where there aren’t any libraries.’
‘Or life forms,’ I said, and he laughed.
‘You’re finding it tough here, city girl?’
I ignored that comment and kept studying the books.
‘You know what people around here would really appreciate instead of books?’
He smiled suggestively at me.
‘Not that,’ I laughed. ‘You could actually make some money out of this thing if you got rid of the books.’
‘Ha! Now that’s not very cultured,’ he said.
‘Well, there’s no bus service around here. Apparently there’s a town fifteen minutes drive away—how is anybody supposed to get there?’
‘Eh…the answer would be in your question.’
‘Yes, but I can’t drive because I’m—’ I stalled, and he smiled. ‘Because I’m not able to drive,’ I finished.
‘What? You mean Daddy didn’t get you a Mini Cooper yet? That’s totally uncool,’ he imitated me.
‘Okay,’ he jumped off the table, filled with energy. ‘I have to go there now. How about we go to this wonderful magical town that no human legs can reach.’
I giggled. ‘Okay.’
‘Don’t you need to run it by somebody? I don’t want to be done for kidnapping.’
‘I may not be a driver but I’m not a child.’ I kept my eye on the bungalow. Rosaleen was gone a long time.
‘You’re sure?’ he asked, looking around. ‘Please just tell someone.’
He looked anxious and just because of that I took out my phone and called Mum’s mobile, which I know she hadn’t touched for a month. I left a message.
‘Hi, Mum, it’s me. I’m outside the house in a bus full of books and a cute guy is going to drive me to the town. I’ll be back in a few hours. In case I don’t come back, his name is Marcus Sandhurst, he’s five foot ten, has black hair, blue eyes…Any tattoos?’ I asked.
He lifted his top. Ooh he was ribbed.
‘He’s got a Celtic cross on his lower abdomen, no chest hair and a silly smile. He likes Scarface, Coldplay and pizza, and is hoping to get into books in a big way. See you later.’
I hung up and Marcus burst out laughing. ‘You know me better than most people.’
‘Let’s get out of here,’ I said.
‘Are you always so misbehaved?’ he asked.
‘Always,’ I responded, and climbed into the passenger seat in preparation for my adventure out of Kilsaney Demesne.
There were twelve minutes of a comfortable and not-for-one-second awkward conversation with Marcus, before reaching the town. Only ‘the town’ wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Even with my expectations lowered to an all-time low, it was so much worse. It was a one-horse town, with not even a horse in sight. A church. A graveyard. Two pubs. A chipper. A petrol station with a newsagent. A hardware store. Full stop.
I must have whimpered because Marcus looked at me, worried.
‘What’s wrong?’ My eyes widened as I turned to him. ‘What’s wrong? I have a Barbie Village from when I was like, five, bigger than this at home.’
He tried not to but he laughed. ‘It’s not that bad. Another twenty minutes and you’re in Dunshauglin; that’s a proper town.’
‘Another twenty minutes? I can’t even get here, to this shit hole on my own.’ I felt my eyes heat up with frustration, my nose started to itch, my eyes began to fill. I felt like kicking the bus down and screaming. I grunted instead. ‘What the hell am I going to do around here on my own, buy a shovel in there, and dig up the dead over there? And have a bag of chips and a pint while I’m doing it?’
Marcus snorted, and had to look away to compose himself. ‘Tamara, it’s really not that bad.’
‘Yes it is. I want a fucking skinny gingerbread latte and a cinnamon roll, now,’ I said very calmly, aware that I was beginning to sound like Violet Beauregarde from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. ‘And while I’m there I want to use my laptop and avail myself of their Wi-Fi service, go online and check my Facebook page. I want to go to Topshop. I want to Twitter. And then I want to go to the beach with my friends and look at the sea and drink a bottle of white wine and I want to get so drunk, I fall over and vomit. You know, like normal things that normal people do. That is what I want.’
‘Do you always get what you want?’ Marcus looked at me.
I couldn’t answer. A giant lump of oh-my-god-I’m-in-love-kind-of-feeling had gathered in my throat. And so I just nodded.
‘Okay,’ he said, perking up, and I swallowed, my Marcus crush sent flying down my oesophagus into my stomach. ‘Let’s look on the bright side.’
‘There is no bright side.’
‘There’s always a bright side.’ He looked left and then he looked right, he held his hands up and his eyes lit up. ‘There’s no library.’
‘Oh my god…’ I head-butted myself off the dashboard.
‘Right,’ he laughed and turned the engine off, ‘let’s go somewhere else.’
‘Don’t you need the engine on to go somewhere else?’ I asked.
‘We’re not driving,’ he said, and climbed over the top of the driver’s seat and into the bus. ‘So, let’s see…where should we go?’ He moved his finger along the spines of the books in the travel section and walked alongside them reading aloud, ‘Paris, Chile, Rome, Argentina, Mexico…’
‘Mexico,’ I said straightaway, kneeling up on the seat to watch him.
‘Mexico,’ he nodded. ‘Good choice.’ He lifted the book from the shelf and looked at me. ‘Well? Are you coming? Flight’s about to leave.’
I smiled and climbed over the back of the seat. We sat on the floor, side by side, in the back of the bus and that day, we went to Mexico.
I don’t know if he knows how important that moment was to me. How much he actually saved me from myself, from absolute despair. Maybe he does know and that’s exactly what he was doing. But he was like an angel who came into my life with his bus of books at exactly the right time, and who whisked me away from a terrible place to a faraway land.
We didn’t stay in Mexico for as long as we’d hoped. We checked into our hotel, double bed, dumped our bags, and headed straight for the beach. I bought a bikini from a man selling them on the beach, Marcus had ordered a cocktail and was going to go on a jetski alone—I was refusing to get into a wet suit—when the knock came on the bus and an elderly woman who eyed me suspiciously stepped on to find something for her to pass her time in. We got to our feet then and I browsed the shelves while Marcus played host. I came across a book about grief; about learning how to deal with personal grief or a loved one suffering from grief. I hovered by that book for a while, my heart pounding as though I’d found a magic vaccination for all worldly diseases. But I couldn’t bring myself to lift it from the shelf—I don’t know why. I didn’t want Marcus to see, I didn’t want him to ask me about it, I didn’t want to have to tell him about Dad dying. Then that would mean I’d be exactly who I was. I was a girl whose dad had just killed himself. If I didn’t tell him, then I didn’t have to be that girl. Not to him, anyway. I would just be her on the inside. I’d let her rage inside me, bubble under my skin, but I’d go to Mexico and leave her behind in the gatehouse.
My eye fell upon a large leather-bound book in non-fiction. It was brown, thick, no author’s name or title along the spine. I pulled it out. It was heavy. The pages were jagged along the edges as though they’d been ripped. ‘So you’re like a Robin Hood of the book world,’ I said, as soon as the old woman had left with a racy romance under her arm, ‘bringing books to those who have none?’
‘Something like that. What have you got there?’
‘Don’t know, there’s no title on the front.’
‘Try the spine.’
‘Not there, either.’
He picked up a folder from beside him and licked his finger before flicking through some pages. ‘What’s the author’s name?’
‘There’s no author’s name.’
He frowned and looked up. ‘Not possible. Open it up and see what’s on the first page.’
‘I can’t,’ I laughed. ‘It’s locked.’
‘Oh, come on,’ he smiled, ‘you’re taking the piss, Goodwin.’
‘I’m not,’ I laughed, moving towards him. ‘Honestly, look.’
I passed it to him and our fingers brushed, causing a tingle of seismic proportions to rush through every single erogenous zone that existed in my body.
The pages of the book were closed with a gold clasp and attached to that was a small gold padlock.
‘What the hell…’ he said, trying to pull at the lock, making a series of grimaces that had me smiling. ‘Trust you to choose the only book in here that doesn’t have an author or title and is padlocked.’
We both started laughing. He gave up on the padlock and our eyes locked.
This was the bit where I was supposed to say, ‘I’m only sixteen.’ But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I told you, I felt older. Everybody always thought I looked older. I wanted to be older. It wasn’t like we were going to have sex on the floor, he wasn’t going to be in prison for staring at me. But still. I should have said it then. If we were in some old Gone with the Wind-style southern early nineteenth-century book, back in the good old days where women were men’s property and weren’t protected at all, then it wouldn’t have mattered, we could have rolled around in the hay in a barn somewhere and done whatever we wanted and nobody would have been accused of anything. I felt like hunting down that book from the shelves, opening it and jumping into the pages with him. But we weren’t. It was the twenty-first century. I was sixteen, very nearly seventeen, and he was twenty-two. I’d seen it on his ID card. I had experience in knowing that a guy’s horn didn’t last until my seventeen birthday. It was rare they felt like coming back in July.
‘Don’t look so sad,’ he said, and reached out and lifted my chin with his finger. I hadn’t realised he’d come so close to me and there he was, right before me. Toe to toe.
‘It’s only…a book.’
I realised I was hugging it close to me, both my arms wrapped around it tightly.
‘But I like the book,’ I smiled.
‘I like the book too, very much. It’s a cheeky very pretty book, but it’s obvious we can’t read it right now.’
My eyes narrowed, wondering if we were talking about the same thing.
‘So, that means we’ll both just have to sit and look at it, until we find the key.’
I smiled, and I felt my cheeks pink.
‘Tamara!’ I heard my name being called. A screeching, desperate call. We stopped gazing at one another and I rushed to the door of the bus. It was Rosaleen. She was running across the road toward me her face scrunched up, her eyes wild and dangerous. Arthur was standing on the pavement beside his car, looking calm. I relaxed a little then. What had Rosaleen all riled up?
‘Tamara,’ she said, breathless. She looked from Marcus to me, appearing like a meerkat again, on high alert. ‘Come back to us, child. Come back,’ she said, her voice shaky.
‘I am coming back,’ I frowned. ‘I’ve only been gone an hour.’
She looked a little confused then, looked at Marcus as if he was going to explain everything.
‘What’s wrong Rosaleen? Is Mum okay?’
She was silent. Her mouth opened and closed as if she was trying to find words.
‘Is she okay?’ I asked again, panic building.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘of course she’s fine.’ She still looked confused, but beginning to calm.
‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘I thought you’d…’ she trailed off, looking around the village now and, as though realising where she was, she stood up straight, ran a hand across her hair to smooth it down, fixed her dress which was crumpled from the drive. She took small breaths and she visibly calmed before us. ‘You’re coming back to the house?’
‘Yes, of course,’ I frowned. ‘I told Mum where I was going.’
‘Yes, but your mother…’
‘My mother what?’ My voice hardened. If everything was so okay with my mother, then my telling her should have been fine.
Marcus’s hand was on my back, his thumb comfortingly circling the small of my back, reminding me of Mexico, of all the other places I could be.
‘You should go with her,’ Marcus said quietly. ‘I have to move on now, anyway.You can hold on to that.’ He nodded at the book I was hugging in my arms.
‘Thanks. See you again?’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Of course, Goodwin. Now go.’
As I walked across the road and sat in the back of the Land Rover, I noticed the three male smokers standing outside the pub, staring. It’s not unusual to be stared at but it was the way they were staring. Arthur nodded at them. Rosaleen kept her head down, her eyes to the floor. The three men’s eyes followed us, and I stared back, hoping to figure out what exactly was their problem. Was it because I was new? But I knew it wasn’t, because they weren’t looking at me. All eyes were on Arthur and Rosaleen. In the car, nobody said a word the entire way home.
Inside the house, I went to check on Mum despite Rosaleen telling me not to. She was still sitting in the rocking chair, not rocking, and looking out at the garden. I sat with her a while and then left. I went downstairs to the living room, back to the armchair I’d been sitting in before Marcus called. I reached for the photo album but it was gone. Tidied away by Rosaleen again. I sighed and searched for it again on the bookshelf. It was gone. I went through every single book on that shelf, but it was nowhere to be found.
I heard a creak at the door and I spun round. Rosaleen was standing there.
‘Rosaleen!’ I said, hand flying to my heart. ‘You scared me.’
‘What were you doing?’ she asked, her fingers creasing and then smoothing the apron over her dress.
‘I was just looking for a photo album I saw earlier.’
‘Photo album?’ She cocked her head sideways, her forehead wrinkled, her face pinched in confusion.
‘Yes, I saw it earlier, before the library came by. I hope you don’t mind, I took it out to look at it but now it’s…’ I held my hands up in the air and laughed. ‘It has mysteriously vanished.’
She shook her head. ‘No, child.’ She looked behind her and then lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Now hush about it.’
Arthur entered then, with a newspaper in his hand and she went quiet. He glanced from me to her.
She looked at Arthur nervously. ‘I better see to the dinner. Rack of lamb tonight,’ she said quietly.
He nodded and watched her leave the room.
The way he watched her made me not want to ask Arthur about the album. The way he watched her made me think a lot of things about Arthur.
Later that evening, I heard them in their bedroom, muffled sounds that rose and fell. I wasn’t sure if it was an argument or not but it felt different from the way they usually talked. It was a conversation, instead of a series of comments thrown to one another. Whatever they were talking about, they were trying hard for me not to hear them. I had my ear up against the wall, wondering about their sudden silence, when my bedroom door opened and Arthur was there staring at me.
‘Arthur,’ I said, moving away from the wall, ‘you should knock. I need my privacy.’
Considering he’d just caught me with my ear to the wall he did well not to say anything.
‘Do you want me to bring you to Dublin in the morning?’ he grumbled.
‘To stay with a friend.’
I was so delighted, I punched the air and got straight on the phone to Zoey, either forgetting to pursue or not caring as to the sudden reason for my expulsion. And so that was the time I went to stay with Zoey. It had been only two nights in the gatehouse and already I felt different returning to Dublin. We went back to our usual patch on the beach beside my house. It looked different and I hated it. It felt different and I hated that too. By the entrance gate to my house a For Sale sign had been erected. I couldn’t look at it without my blood boiling, my heart rate rising and feeling an overwhelming desire to scream like a banshee, so I didn’t look. Zoey and Laura were already studying me as though I had landed from another planet, gutted their best friend and zipped on her outer layer of skin like a sleeping suit, and everything I said was being picked at, analysed, misconstrued.
Seeing the For Sale sign, my two friends, with the sensitivity of a ‘Geronimo’ became excited. Zoey chattered incessantly about breaking into the house and spending the afternoon there, as though at that exact time in my life that was the appropriate thing to say. Laura, a little more genteel, looked uncertainly at me while Zoey’s back was turned to face the gate and assess the situation, but when I didn’t object, she went along with the idea, swept out into sea like a freshly flushed shit.
I don’t know how I did it but I managed to kill the excitement for raiding my repossessed house in which my father had killed himself. Instead we got drunk and plotted against Arthur and Rosaleen and their evil country ways. I told them—no I didn’t just tell them, I revealed to them—about Marcus and the bus of books and they laughed, thinking him an absolute dork, thinking of the travelling library as the most ridiculously boring thing that they had ever heard of. It was bad enough to have a room full of books but to make books even more accessible, well, that was a downright dorkfest.
That hurt me so much but I couldn’t quite understand why. I tried to hide it, but the one source of excitement and escape I’d experienced in the month since Dad died was shredded in an instant. I think that’s when I started building a wall up between us. They knew it too. Zoey was looking at me with those squinted dissecting eyes that she gives anybody that’s in any way different, different being the worst possible offence in the world to her. They didn’t know why, they never thought that the emotional impact of what I’d just gone through was going to change not just me for a few weeks, but the very core of me for ever. They just thought living in the country was having a bad effect on me. But I’d been trampled on like a plant that has been crushed underfoot but not killed, and just like the plant I’d no choice but to grow in a different direction than I had before.
When Zoey grew bored, or scared, of discussing things she knew nothing of, she called Fiachrá Garóand the third muskateer, Colm, who I call Cabáte—which means ‘cabbage’ in Irish. I’d never ever spoken to him properly in my life. Zoey paired off with Garóid, Fiachrá was partnered with Laura, which Zoey had seemed to have got over, and Cabáiste and I just sat and watched the sea, while the other four rolled around in the sand making sloppy noises, and Cabáiste glugged occasionally on a nagin of vodka, and I expected to be groped at any moment. He covered the bottle with his mouth and knocked back another mouthful, and I waited for that wet, sloppy, vodka-tasting kiss that slightly stung and made me want to retch at the same time.
But he didn’t do that.
‘Sorry about your dad,’ he said quietly.
His comment took me by surprise and then suddenly I became so emotional I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t answer him, I couldn’t even look at him. I looked the other way and allowed the breeze to blow my hair across my face, hiding and sticking to the hot tears that rolled down my cheeks.
The fact I’d been trampled on was obvious. What I called into question time and time again was which direction I was now growing in.
Whenever I left home for a longer length of time than usual, say to go on a school trip abroad, or when I went on shopping trips to London with friends, I always used to bring something with me to remind me of home—just something small. One Christmas we were at a buffet in a hotel and my dad stole a little plastic penguin that was sitting on top of a pudding and he put it in my dessert. He was trying to be funny but I was having one of those days, which was much like most days, where nothing he said or did could possibly be conceived of as funny, and so somehow the penguin ended up in my pocket that day. Then months later, when I was away, I put my hand in my pocket and found the little penguin, and laughed. Dad’s joke, though months way too late and not in his presence, I finally found funny. Somehow on that trip, it ended up in my washbag, and it travelled the world with me.
You know one of those things that you only have to look at and it instantly connects you to something else? I’m not a sentimental person; I never felt that attached to anything or anyone at home. Not like some people, who just have to look at something, like even a piece of fluff, and it sends tears to their eyes because it vaguely reminds them of something somebody once said once upon a time at home, when hindsight, whispering into their ear like the devil, tells them they were happy. No, bringing something with me was just a little ammunition really, to make me feel like I wasn’t totally and utterly alone, that I had a little piece of home with me. Not sentimentality, just simple plain old insecurity.
I certainly wasn’t attached to the gatehouse in any way. I’d only been there for a couple of days but during my great escape to Zoey’s house, I brought the book I’d found in the travelling library with me. I still hadn’t managed to unlock it and I certainly had no intentions of reading it while I was there, not when they were so busy telling me about their new source of entertainment—wait for it—going out without underwear on. Honestly, I had to laugh. There was a photo of Cindy Monroe, a six-and-a-half-stone, five foot tall, American reality star, getting out of a car to go to a club the day of her release from forty-eight hours spent in gaol for drink-driving, and she wasn’t wearing any knickers. Zoey and Laura seemed to think this was a great new leap forward for women. I think that when the women’s lib took off their bras and burned them, this wasn’t exactly what they were hoping for. I said this to Zoey and she studied me thoughtfully, her eyes squinting almost closed like she was the Queen of Hearts about to decide whether to chant ‘Off with her head!’ or not. But then she opened her eyes wide and said, ‘No it’s fine, my top was totally backless so I couldn’t wear a bra either.’
Totally backless. Very dead. Another one of those phrases. It was either backless or it wasn’t. I’ve no doubt that it was.
Anyway, when I was sent away to Zoey’s house—‘sent away’ being the operative words—I felt like I’d been told to go sit on the naughty step to think about what I’d done. Despite the fact I should have felt that I was heading home, that I was heading towards feeling more whole again, I didn’t feel like it at all. And so, I brought a piece of the new world with me. I brought the book. I knew it was there in my bag when I was sleeping on the pull-out bed in Zoey’s room, and as we stayed up all night talking about everything, I knew that it was listening to me, this foreign thing from my detested new life, gaining an insight into the life I once had. I had a witness. I felt like telling it to go home and tell what my life used to be like to all the other things there that I loathed. The book felt like my little secret from Laura and Zoey, a pointless and boring one but a secret all the same, lying beside me in my overnight bag.
And so when Arthur’s Land Rover turned into the side entrance to Kilsaney Demesne, and I was gobbled up again by my new desperate non-life, I decided to take the book and go for a walk with it. I knew it would kill Rosaleen if I didn’t arrive back and fill her in on the no-knickers-wearing trend, and as it was always my duty to punish, I set off. I also knew that Mum would still be in the same place, sitting in that rocking chair, not rocking, but I allowed my mind to pretend she was doing the exact opposite, like out in the garden doing naked pirouettes or something.
I’d never walked around the grounds before. To and from the castle, yes, but around the one hundred acres, no. All of my previous visits had been made up of tea and ham sandwiches in a quiet kitchen while Mum talked about things I didn’t care about with my strange aunt and uncle. I’d do anything—eat twenty sloppy egg sandwiches and two slices of whatever cake was going—to get out of that kitchen and wander in the front garden that wrapped its way around to the back. Nowhere else interested me. I wasn’t much of an explorer, anything that involved movement bored me. I was never intrigued enough by anything to take things that little bit further. On that day I still wasn’t, but I was bored and so I dumped my overnight bag, which Arthur snot-snorted at and brought into the house for me, and I was gone.
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