The story so far: Jo Devereux has returned to Mucknamore, the Irish seaside village where she grew up, for her mother’s funeral after an absence of 20 years. There she reconnects with her sister Maeve and her ex-boyfriend, Rory O’Donovan, the only man she has ever loved, who caused the rift between her and her family. Now read on:
‘So, Dev,’ he says, after my sister has made her excuses and scuttled away. ‘What’s going on? Why are you receiving us in bed, like a courtesan? You don’t look sick to me. You look better than ever.’
As he’s talking, he’s pulling out the chair from the corner and bringing it over, close to the bed. ‘Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to. Lying low, avoiding the mob. Avoiding me too, you brat.’
Brat-sh. The soft Irish T. He sounds so Wexford to my ears now, such a strong streak of Mucknamore in his accent: the nasal vowels, the singing rise and fall to his sentences. But of course it’s my speech that has changed, not his. I am stuck again by the newness of him, the short hair that makes him look unfinished.
‘It’s all a bit Mucknamore for me.’
‘I knew it.’
‘I hear you’re a full fledged resident now.’ I speak as if I only heard today, as if Maeve and Dee, my Wexford friend who also lives in SF, hadn’t passed on everything they knew about him since I left. ‘Was the progressive liberalism that drew you? Or the cultural stimulation?’
‘No need to sneer, city girl. It’s a good place to live.’
I raise my brows into a question. The Rory I knew could not have been happy here.
‘I like that it takes me only thirty traffic-free minutes to get to work. That my nice house cost half-nothing compared to a similar place in the city. That after work I can go walking in clean air or swimming in a clean sea. That I drink in a pub where everybody knows me.’
‘Stop, you’re scaring me.’
He laughs, then waves towards the window. ‘Look at it. Look at how lovely it is. Even you must admit that.’
And I suppose I must. The window frames Mucknamore in full seductive act. Over to our right, the setting sun throws streaks of orange and pink and red along the sky and the sea borrows and flaunts the colors like they’re its own. Waves shimmer around the curve of the Point and Coolanagh and between the island and the sea, flat sands glisten with foam. Above it all, seabirds circle and swoop, silver-and-gold underwings flashing in the dazzling, dying light.
‘When did you ever care about scenery?’
‘I think I always did, Jo. I know I brought that sight away with me everywhere I travelled and never saw anywhere that looked better. And when the time came to…’ He hesitates. I know why. He was going to say, ‘to get married’.
‘To…to figure out where home was,’ he says instead. ‘Well… Here I am.’
Here he is, turning around the chair to sit into it, backwards, his thighs straining against his trousers, his bulk a little too near. ‘And you? You’ve wound up in San Francisco.’
‘Yeah. I left London in ‘82.’
‘And that’s home for you? You like it?’
‘Sure. I like that I’m surrounded by millions of people. That my two-roomed apartment is worth a ludicrous amount of money that keeps on rising. That I can choose from a hundred bars where nobody knows me.’
He tosses his head back into a laugh, his way. It’s all the same: the crinkles round his eyes, the missing tooth that shows only when his lips are stretched into his widest smile. ‘God Jo,’ he says. ‘You haven’t changed a bit.’
‘Of course I have.’
‘You look so much the same. I was surprised by that.’
‘I’m twenty years different. Just like you.’
‘Twenty years.’ He lets out a long whistle. ‘Is that what it is?’
Yes, Rory, that is what it is.
When I was a girl, I had one person who was all mine. A secret person into whom I poured everything. A boy.
He lived up the road from me and was my own age but I was not supposed to speak to him. He didn’t go to our local school – each morning his sister brought him into Wexford town in her blue Mini on her way to work at Furlongs Department Store and he never came into our shop, just like I never walked up the side road that led to his family’s farm. If he, or any of his family, met me or any of mine our eyes automatically went towards the ground or the sky.
I knew he was never given instructions in how to do this. Or why. I knew that, like me, he was born to it.
Outside school hours, I saw him often. Obedient until our teens, we never gave each other even a hello. But we did look. Whenever I would sneak a veiled glance towards him, across the road or the church or the beach, I often found him looking back. We could get locked in these stares but never for long. We were afraid of being noticed and we were shy. Those few seconds could be so intense they hurt.
At night in bed I would summon up in my mind our most recent encounter and run it through my head like a movie, milking it for detail. I had no time for other Mucknamore boys, with their bruised legs and dirty hands and slow minds. Boys who always had to be in a group, jostling or jeering or running about, yelling and waving their arms. Pretending to murder each other with sticks, from behind trees, or yelling about doing it for real: ‘I’ll kill you, I’ll bloody kill you.’ Those boys could never do what he did: walk down a road alone. He was different. Like me.
He became an altar boy and every Sunday he was on show at Mass, performing holy chores. Holy communion became the high point of my week, those few seconds at the altar when I let out my tongue for the host and his hand was beneath my chin holding the paten, close enough to touch. What a little stalker I was. What ferocity I brought to watching him as he bowed low, or rang the little bell, so much that, even now as his adult self sits before me, I can see eleven-year-old Rory, good shoes and grey socks jutting from beneath his surplice, a sliver of shin revealed as he reclined on the altar steps, and remember how the thoughts of approaching the altar while this unlikely sex symbol was up there could make my own hands shake so bad that I had to sit on them.
What was all that? For a long time, I thought it was pure unadulterated love. Then that it was crazed adolescent hormones. Now I wonder what on earth I was projecting onto him. And how did Mrs D. or Gran or, especially, Maeve not notice, standing and kneeling so close to me? How could such fervor have been contained by my skin?
It led me to break the unspoken rule and asks at home about the O’Donovans, about why the two families were estranged.
Daddy said, ‘Aw, that old scéal. Nothing to do with me, love. Ask your mammy.’
Mrs D. said: ‘I’m up to my eyes, child. Will you don’t be bothering me?’
Granny Peg said, ‘Ah now, pet, don’t go digging up all of that. You’ll only upset your mammy. And Auntie Norah. You wouldn’t want to upset your Auntie Norah?’
Auntie Norah was the key, that much I’d figured out. Miss Norah O’Donovan: his aunt really, not mine. His aunt but living with us. And like us never, ever talking to them.
Now his adult eyes are bouncing all over me, like they can’t get enough of what they are seeing. ‘How on earth,’ I ask him, ‘did you end up with my mother as a client?’
‘You were surprised?’
‘I knew you would be.’
‘But how did it happen?’
‘It began nine years ago, when I moved back to Mucknamore. If I was going to be living here, I decided I couldn’t carry on avoiding Parle’s pub. Most of the lads I hang around with drink here and anyway, the whole quarrel had come to seem so pointless. So I gathered up my courage and one early evening after work, when I thought the place wouldn’t be too busy, I took myself in here for a drink.’
‘After taking the big step, she wasn’t even here herself. It was Eileen Power behind the counter. I asked her for a pint and she looked at me boggle-eyed. “Excuse me one sec,” she said, and she scuttled off, leaving me standing there like a right eejit. Three or four others were in, delighted with the goings-on, on the edge of their stools to see what was going to happen next.’
I throw my eyes ceiling-ward.
‘I know. Only they were all watching, I think I’d have run out at that stage. I was so nervous. After what seemed like a day and a half, out she came, with Eileen running behind her. “Can I help you?” she said in her best frosty voice, and I knew straight away it was going to be all right because I could see that underneath the frost she was flustered herself. “A pint of Guinness, please, Mrs Devereux,” I said. She stood there a minute. Everybody was watching. When she picked up a glass and pulled the tap, it was like the whole place let out its breath.’
‘And that was it?’
‘That was it. I’ve been a regular ever since. I even get – got – a Christmas drink. I even,’ he says, face wrinkled with apology, ‘became fond of her.’
‘Ah, Dev, her bark was worse than her bite.’
‘Don’t you start.’ I never try to make anyone else see Mrs D. my way. Why do they all feel the need to defend her to me? ‘What about your own folks?’ I ask. ‘They can’t have been too delighted to see you tippling in the enemy camp?’
‘I didn’t tell them at first. I knew it wouldn’t take long for it to get out. My father was given the job of tackling me. “I hear you’ve been seen in Devereux’s,” was what he said to me, as if it was a brothel or something. I just laughed, said the old feud had nothing to do with me, that what was past was past.’
‘That simple, eh?’
‘What could he say, if you think about it?’
A familiar feeling coils inside me, deep and cold. ‘So . . . A happy ending all round. How moving.’
He knows what I mean. That it could be that easy, after all they put us through. That he could just say, what’s past is past and, miraculously… it was.
He leans forward in the chair. ‘I often wondered how things turned out for you, Dev, but I never got the nerve to ask your mother. Our association – hers and mine – was very much on her terms.’
‘That sounds like Mrs D. all right.’
‘So I never asked. But I often wondered,’ he repeats. He leans in close to me, picks up a strand of my hair. ‘You never changed it,’ he says.
‘When you made your grand entrance into the church yesterday that was the first thing I thought: she never changed the hair.’
He tugs the curl straight, then winds it around his finger. I let him, but only for a second, before jerking my head away and back to reality. ‘You live alone?’ I ask, without expression.
‘No.’ He tries not to hesitate. ‘No. I got married nine years ago.’
I had a follow-up line prepared for this inevitable moment but, having invited it, my brain has now decided to evacuate. Silence lengthens and loads. It is he who breaks it. ‘We have two children,’ he says.
‘Two? That’s lovely.’ Oh, God is that the best I can do? That’s lovely?
‘Boys?’ I manage after a while. ‘Or . . . em . . . girls?’
‘One of each. Ella, the elder one, is five. Dara is four.’ His face is expanding with that look parents take on when they talk about their children.
‘And your wife, is she from round here? Would I know her?’
‘No. She’s from Cork.’
‘So you’ve done it all,’ I say. ‘Wife, kids, law practice in town, big house in the country.’
‘I’ve been lucky, I suppose.’
Does he not remember that we never wanted all that? Maybe he is right, maybe I haven’t changed as much as he has. Certainly he’s coming over as all grown up whereas I, since arriving in Mucknamore, am reliving the gauchest horrors of my adolescence. I am not normally like this! I want to scream at him. I am a syndicated magazine writer! I have a des. res. in Lower Haight! Sometimes people ask for my autograph!
‘What about you?’ he wants to know. ‘Are you married?’
‘Oh no. No. You know monogamy was never my thing.’
‘Never say never,’ he smiles, which makes me want to slap him. He might as well have said, There’s hope for you yet.
‘Hey,’ he says, seeing my face. ‘I didn’t mean that whatever way you’re taking it. I just meant…’
‘I’m single because that’s how I like it.’
‘Sure. I get that.’
It’s true that there’s a great deal about being single that I like. Or that I will like again once I find a way back to myself. Back to the kinds of days I used to have when I first went to SF — when I had lovers, not pick-ups, when I had joys, not dubious pleasures. When I had Richard. Well Richard is gone, forever, and I have spent too long wishing for him to come back. I have to move on. I have to learn how to create myself – by myself, for myself – the color and excitement he used to bring to my life. That much I’ve worked out.
‘Look, I won’t stay long, Jo.’ It’s his turn to change the subject. ‘I dropped up here because I need to talk to you about your mother’s will.’
‘Rory, I’ve already told Maeve. I don’t give a fiddler’s about—’
He holds up his hand. ‘I know that, Dev. We all know that. But can you just listen for a minute. Last January, your mother said to me, “I’m not long for this world. I won’t last the year.” I laughed it off, the way you do, but she started making plans and she hired me to carry them out. So this is business. And this,’ he says, reaching across to place the white envelope he has been holding onto the bedspread, ‘is for you.’
A white A4 envelope with my name written on the outside in blue ink: Siobhán. Mrs D’s handwriting, still small and neat and tight as print. At the centre, between the folds of paper: something hard. ‘Siobhán,’ I say. ‘Nobody has called me that in years. Nobody except Mrs D.’
‘Don’t open the letter yet,’ he says, getting up. ‘There’s something else you have to be given first. Wait here.’ He goes out of the room and returns immediately, carrying a battered blue suitcase. I recognize it immediately. Six times a year, I used to fill it with blankets and sheets, uniforms and games kit and be driven with it from Mucknamore to my convent boarding school, or back. Maeve had a similar one in red.
He heaves it onto the bed where it lands at my feet with a bounce. ‘Jesus, it’s heavy,’ he says, puffing. ‘I’m always surprised by the weight of paper.’
‘It’s full of documents. Family papers, photographs, newspaper cuttings, that sort of thing. The key is in that sealed envelope you’ve got there. You are the only one who is to have access.’
‘I don’t know. I’m just following instructions. I was to make sure to give this to you myself and I was to tell you that the contents are for your eyes only, nobody else’s. She was very clear about that.’
I take out the key, pull the case towards me. The locks must have recently been oiled because one twist of the key and – click, click – they snap open. It is crammed with all kinds of documents. Packets of letters tied with faded ribbon. A stack of shop ledger diaries (author: Granny Peg). Sheaves of paper, close covered in black ink, tied with string (author: Auntie Norah). And a smell of yesterday as strong as bottled scent.
Half of me wants to recoil but the other half wins and I find myself picking through the photographs: heavy daguerreotypes, stiff sepias from the early part of the century, black-and-whites from the 40s and 50s and from around the time when I was born, colorful prints that bring us all the way up to now, to these pictures on top which were presumably taken by Donal, of Mrs D – smaller and more wrinkled than I remember – clasped in Maeve’s arms while together they watch Ria blow out the candles on a birthday cake.
Beneath and between the pictures are pamphlets and booklets, song-sheets with the words of old ballads, and pink files full of notes about what seem to be IRA matters, dispatches to and from various officers of Mucknamore IRA written by somebody called Maire Parle.
Wasn’t that the name of Gran’s mother?
Damn you, Mrs D., I think as I rummage through, reluctantly first, then greedily, until I become aware again of Rory looking at me looking, which is all too much for me. I replace the papers, close the lid of the case, snap the clasps on tight. ‘What was she up to?’ I ask him.
‘I honestly don’t know. Apart from the fact that it meant meeting up with you’ – that grin again – ‘I treated it as if she was just another client. I’ve had stranger requests.’
‘How was she so certain I’d come back?’
‘If you didn’t, I was to get your address and bring the suitcase and the letter across to you in the States. Make sure to put it into your hand myself.’
I imagine myself in my San Francisco apartment, answering my buzzer one ordinary day and hearing Rory O’Donovan’s voice coming through the speaker at me. At the behest of Mrs D. What the hell was she playing at? And him too, with his hair touching and his ‘Never say never’, and ‘You haven’t changed a bit’. I was crazy to have come here, to have delivered myself up to this.
‘You can take it back,’ I say. ‘I don’t want it.’
‘Ah, Dev . . . ’
‘Family papers. Can’t you just imagine? Uncle Barney, the IRA hero. Fianna Fáil the fabulous. Spare me, please. Take it back to wherever it came from.’
6th February 1995.
A letter from beyond the grave, what do you think of that? I got one from your Granny Peg when she passed on so I can imagine some of your feelings as you read this. By now you’ll have had the suitcase and seen what’s in it. Most of these letters and records were kept by your Granny Peg – I don’t think that woman ever threw away a piece of paper. It was always in my mind that we should sort out those papers some day, destroy the rubbish and the private stuff and give the rest to somebody who could put together a family history. When your gran died, she suggested, among other things, that the person should be you.
As you know, Siobhán, you come from a family that played no small part in Ireland’s fight for freedom. I believe the stories of those who died for their country should be preserved and passed on to the younger generations who, I have to say, seem to take so much for granted these days. Some time ago I sat down to tackle the task but I found it impossible. Everything was all mixed up together and one thing seemed to hang on another. I couldn’t work out what to leave in and what to take out. After days of shuffling bits of paper in and out of different piles, I came round to agreeing with your gran. You are used to writing and would be much better up to the task.
So that is what I want you to do, Siobhán – the Parle family history. Focus on the part our family played in the Easter Rising of 1916, there is where you’ll find our glory. Contrary to what you’d think if you were to listen only to Dubliners, the glorious uprising that won Ireland its freedom took place in other parts of the country besides the capital. That Enniscorthy here in Co. Wexford was one such is down to your maternal ancestors. That is something of which you can be proud, I think, don’t you?
There is so much ignorance today about the sacrifices endured by that great generation. Sacrifices made so that those who came after them (yourself included, I might add) could grow up in a free country.
Those men and women who worked and died for Ireland are half-forgotten now. The 75-year commemoration of the Rising in ’91 was an unholy disgrace. It nearly killed your gran, how they failed to honor our origins. It’s time someone reminded the young people that not too long ago, there were Irish men and women who had interests beyond the raking in of money, who had principles and ideals they were prepared to die for. You come from such a family.
There’s a danger in me doing this, Siobhán, I won’t pretend I don’t know it. I’m afraid of what you might write, what you might choose to highlight. But your gran thought you and Maeve should know all, now that the knowing can do no harm, and I’ve come round to thinking maybe she was right. So I’ve destroyed nothing, not even Auntie Norah’s ramblings and inventions, most of which no sane person could read anyhow, her handwriting so bad and her thoughts all over the place.
I’m putting three generations of Parles into your hands, Siobhan, trusting you not to make public anything we would prefer to remain private. I’m also hoping when you read these papers you’ll understand better why it was so terrible for me that time when you got yourself mixed up with an O’Donovan. I’ve played that last evening in our kitchen 10,000 times in my mind and I greatly regret the pity of how we both overreacted. At the beginning, I was afraid that if we did make up and you came back home, you’d take up with him again. Your grandmother feared that too, I know. It doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing now but at the time, the fear was very real.
Yet I was always expecting something to happen that would bring you back to us. Always, until Mammy died. When you didn’t come back for your Granny Peg’s funeral, I knew I’d go to my own grave without seeing you again. That’s a hard thing to do to a parent, Siobhán, but I forgive you, as I hope my Will makes clear. Everything I have, I leave equally to you and Maeve. I’m sure you agree it’s a tidy sum. Invested wisely, you’ll be free from money worries and able to do whatever you want. You could afford to take time off from writing in those magazines or better still, give up that kind of thing entirely.
So there you are: the only thing I’ve ever asked you to do. Make us a family history that makes us all proud, something that can be passed on to little Ria and her children and your own, if you’re so blessed. Don’t write anything that would make me regret I didn’t destroy the lot and take their secrets to the grave. Think of it as a way of making amends, of putting things right between us.
I regret that I won’t be here to guide you but I’ll be looking down from Heaven. (Keep that in your mind as you write and you won’t go too far wrong.) I’ll be praying for you as I always have. Always Siobhan. I want you to know that. Because through it all I was always
I’m trying to sleep but my mind has cracked around that letter. For months now, I’ve been back in the night-time place I thought I had vanquished forever, where thoughts hold me staring open-eyed into the dark. Middle-of-the-night self-pitying scenarios about ending it all and how, if I did, it could be days before anybody would know.
How not until I failed to return enough phone calls or missed my next deadline would they notice. How, eventually, somebody – Dee or Gary or Lauren, my editor – would grow anxious and want to check but they wouldn’t be able to get in. Since Richard died, mine has been a only-one-key-to-my-apartment kind of life. So the building super would have to be called. As they came in the hallway, their eyes would fasten immediately on my shut bedroom door. Wordlessly, they would move across to open it and. . .
It’s been bad in San Francisco, then here this evening, in Mrs D’s house, after reading her letter and observing her little schemes… it’s unbearable. Outside daylight is stretching itself into a long dusk. I’d forgotten how, at this time of year, an Irish evening doesn’t die until after 10 o’clock. I’ve barely thought the thought but I’m up, out of bed and opening my suitcase, not the big blue bequest that lies on the end of the bed where Rory lobbed it, but my own, all-the-way-from San Francisco suitcase that Maeve must have brought up here earlier, while I slept.
I pull on my jeans, the snug ones that still fit, and walking shoes and sneak down the back stairs. From the front room, the sound of the party continues, but muted compared to earlier. By this time, only the stragglers – those who cared most for Mrs D and those who turned out for the free drink — are left. I get down and out the back door without being seen. The cool, summer evening is like a gentle splash of water on my face. Once down the path, across the garden and behind the hedge that parts it from a cluster of long unused farm sheds, I stop, to gulp in large lungfuls of fresh air, as if I have just sprinted a marathon.
I stop outside the cowshed where I used to hide out as a child, enfolded by a memory of its soft, pale light, the relief I used to take in its soothing. Grass has grown across the bottom receiver for the wheels of the big sliding door. I pluck it away, and push hard against the stiff, rusty wheels to get it open. Inside, all is dust and neglect. Two broken bar stools sit on top of a rusted bottling machine. A punctured sofa spews yellow sponge filling. Still it has its own sweet smell of earthy straw and this triggers a sense memory so intense that for a moment I am eight years old again and climbing the ladder that used to be in here to hide my treasures up there on the ridge under the length of its corrugated iron roof that makes a shelf.
This cowshed was where I read and wrote and drew and daydreamed and collected shells and stones and other treasures that would make the rest of my family laugh again at me. Yet I had almost forgotten about it, forgotten there was anything to forget.
Resolving to come back when I feel a bit stronger, I take a last gasp of its earthy air. Right now, what I need is to walk and to get as much sea air into my lungs as I can before dark. I press on, through the small gate at the end of our field, to the edge of the sandy, marly cliffside, down the steps to the beach and on down towards the water, pressing my feet into the sand, as if to convince myself that I am here, that she is gone.
‘She is dead,’ I say out loud, shouting it to the empty sea as I reach its edge. The word skims across the water like a flat stone. Dead. Dead. Dead.
She is dead. It is over.
NEXT: Jo Shares Her Secret