The story so far: Jo Devereux is back in Mucknamore, the Irish seaside village where she grew up. Her mother’s dying request is that she will stay on and write a family history, from the pile of family papers she’s bequeathed her about the Irish liberation struggle in 1922. Life back in San Francisco is not ideal for Jo but how can she stay on in Mucknamore, when she has never fitted in? And when Rory O’Donovan, the only man she ever really loved, lives there with his wife and children and seems to think they can now be friends, despite all that happened.

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Over, yes. But now this compulsion to write about it and live it again. And I have to start with that awful night in San Francisco with Dee, just before I heard that Mrs D. was dying.

I don’t want to remember myself, walking along the solid city sidewalk, through air thickening with the smell of food.  Or Dee and I, sitting at our usual table outside Benton’s, heads leaning into each other over bowls of pasta, while the sky faded from blue to purple, and lights sprang on across the city, their sense of promise making me ache, so that the night stretched into one bottle of wine and then a second one, which for me was so obviously the wrong, but at the same time, the only possible thing to do.

I don’t want to remember us, polishing off that second bottle, then going to that nightclub to gyrate around a dancefloor, pretending to have eyes only for each other and our own good time, pretending we were not on show, that we hadn’t already staked out our quarry: two guys we knew for a while, Steve (hers) and Paul (mine), friends of friends of friends.

Paul.  I so definitely do not want to remember him, asking me to dance and asking me whether I was enjoying myself and asking me what I worked at in that bland and hopeless way that made me simultaneously pity and deplore him, so that on question three I had to pull out of the ritual and deliver, with a deadpan, straight face, the reply: ‘I’m in the sex business.’

It’s a line I’d used before to men like him and I knew how he’d react, the simultaneous, contrary pulls of attraction and repulsion. ‘Really?

‘Yep. Really.’

His brain fizzed with options: prostitute? stripper? lap-dancer? telephone-sex operator? ‘glamour’ model? porn actress?  Like me, he has had too much to drink. Unlike me, his thoughts slide across his face, clear to read. ‘You don’t look like someone in the sex business.’

‘Why? Is there a look?’

He grins. ‘I thought so.’

‘What? Big breasts, blonde hair, plastic face?’

‘Something like that, yeah.’

‘That’s just a stereotype.’

‘I guess it is. Still . . . ’

‘Still . . .? I don’t look sexy enough?’

‘Honey, not that . . . Definitely not that.’

‘What, then?’

‘It’s just . . . Oh hell . . . ‘  We laughed at his tangle.   ‘So go on then, what exactly is your business?’

‘Can’t you guess?’

‘Uh-uh,’ he laughed again. ‘I’m not guessing. No way.’

I relented. My corner of the sex market, I told him, was advice. I am Sue Denim. Sue Denim Solves your Sex Problems. Read by millions of glossy-magazine readers all over the States and in Canada, Britain, South Africa and Australia too. Sue Denim: the Sexpert with Sizzle.

Dear Sue, Nobody has ever loved me . . .

Dear Sue, My genitals are so ugly I could never let any man see them . . .

Dear Sue, My boyfriend raped me last night . . .

Dear Sue, My penis is too small to satisfy a woman . . . (yes, men write too)

Dear Sue, I like to be whipped until my skin breaks . . .

Dear Sue, I’m crying as I write this letter . . .

It’s a non-job, I know that. I don’t flatter myself that I solve these people’s troubles. My value is simply in prodding them to sit down and write out their dilemma. In order to write, they have to put some order on their chaos, define it to themselves.

And when I question whether that small benefit justifies the easy and ample living I make from their distress, I console myself by asking, who does heal the troubles of the world? Psychologists? Psychiatrists? New-age therapists? At least I do not fool myself.  I am a stranger, not an aunt; a hack, not a healer. I take pain and shape it into reading matter.

Sue Denim: Fraud.

***

He starts to kiss me during the third track when I lean back my head in invitation. There was a time when I used to prefer the preliminaries, the chit-chat and hold-off, the let’s-get-to-know-each-other-first, but somewhere along the line of my life, cutting direct to the physical came to seem more honest.

I try to settle into the soft small movements of lips learning about each other, the smell and taste of new mouth, leaning in so the kiss deepens, to the bone under the flesh, to the muscle of tongue. When the slow set fades, the lights come up and the thump of dance music resumes, we pull apart, our breath thick with the taste of each other.

I say, ‘Shall we get out of here?’

His eyes, heavy from our embrace, spring in surprise. It has been two, maybe three, minutes since we started kissing. A sliver of hesitation, then he smiles. ‘Yeah, OK,’ he says. ‘Why not?’

Shaking my head now, I try to clear it of the memory.

I have arrived down at The Point, the high, compacted strip of sand dunes that joins Mucknamore beach to Coolanagh.  A pathway worn in its centre by all the feet that walk out this way gets narrower and less defined as you progress out towards the island. It’s tough going, up and down the uneven surface of the dunes and most turn back after about half way. I press on. The effort wipes my mind of thought and is just what I need.

Before long, I’m panting.  So unfit.  When I drink, I also smoke. A toxic marriage.  I slow my pace a little. About halfway out, the barbed-wire fencing and warning signs that mark off Coolanagh sands begin: ‘WARNING!’ they shout. ‘DANGER! The Sands on this side of the Point are Unstable and Unsafe. Do not Diverge from the Path.’

The past opens out at my feet in a flood of memories. I realise I am retracing the steps I took on my last night in Mucknamore, 20 years ago. I divert off the path, down to the edge of the wire, to the dip in the sands they call Lovers’ Hollow. Hidden from the island and mainland, I sink down onto the sand and finally give way to the sobs that have been gathering in me for days. No, for months. Years?Sobs loud and harsh and ugly, the sort you don’t want anyone to hear.

***

‘Can I do it?’ Rory asks. ‘I’ve always fancied pulling my own pint.’

I hand him a glass. ‘Let the first one run off. What’s in the pipes will be stale.‘

‘I can’t get used to this place being closed.’ he says, tilting the glass as the creamy black liquid pours in, then letting it settle. He are I are together, alone, in the pub, the business that sustained our family for generations, now closed.  Maeve and Donal and Ria left for Dublin this morning and it’s been a long day here alone with the ghosts and memories. So I was glad, I admit it, when I answered the doorbell and found Rory standing on the step, tie loosened, excuse for calling on his way home from work in place. The German buyers have been on,  can he come in and let me know what they said. I brought him through to the kitchen but it felt too awkward to sit him there and the sitting room would have been worse, so I said, ‘Would you like a drink?’ and, without waiting for an answer,  walked him through to the pub instead.

So here we are, with the shutters closed so the punters know not to try to get in, and all the lights on.  He levels off his pint, seats himself on the high stool behind the bar.  Mrs D’s stool.  I uncap a bottle of fizzy orange for myself and move back round to the customer side, putting the counter between us. The place smells of musty smoke and alcohol and feels abandoned, like it’s shocked to have been stopped so suddenly in its daily doings.

‘Everybody misses it.  And it looks like it’ll be gone for quite a while.’

‘Is that what they said?’

‘They don’t intend to open again until they’ve done major renovations.’

‘When are they arriving?’

‘Next Tuesday.’

‘Oh.’

‘Is that too soon for you?’

‘Oh no, the sooner the better.’

‘I thought you might hang around for a bit. It’s been so long since you were home.’

‘I need to get back. I’ve already stayed longer than I intended.’

‘Somebody pining for you over there?’ He says it lightly but I know he’s been waiting for an opportunity to ask.

‘No significant other, if that’s what you mean.’ I match his tone: we are Ms Bright and Mr Breezy, dipping and swerving around our history.

‘And you can send in your work by email, can’t you?’

‘Mmm.’

‘Well, then . . . ’

I shrug.

His Guinness is ready, a perfect ring of white topping a glassful of black. He holds it up for me to admire.

‘Not bad,’ I say. ‘For a first attempt.’

‘Cheers.’

I lift my drink to his and we clink glasses, our eyes meeting. The air between us becomes charged and we drink and swallow and put our glasses down with an unnatural awareness.

‘I was telling Margie about your mother and her bequest… the suitcase, I mean… and she dug out this for you.’

Margie is his sister, one of the O’Donovans who was most vigilant about never speaking to us.  What could she have for me, I wonder? He reaches over to his briefcase. He puts a yellowing newspaper cutting on the counter between us.  ‘It seem the uncles were great friends, did you know that?’

‘No.’

‘Friends and comrades. They ended up in an English prison together, for drilling IRA soldiers and for playing the Sinn Féin trick of the time, carrying on as if the British courts had no jurisdiction over them.’

I smooth it out on the counter, careful not to tear the brittle paper.

Unprecedented scenes of excitement accompanied the trial of two Mucknamore men, Ibar Parle and Dan O’Donovan, at the Wexford Assizes on Tuesday last. A large crowd of onlookers congregated outside the courthouse before the trial, and the District Inspector billeted 20 local RIC police to the building to keep order.

The two prisoners were brought out and put in the dock and immediately began to speak amongst themselves. They also ignored the order for Hats Off. The police were forced to remove hats from the prisoners, leading to shouts and jeers from some among the assembled crowd and it took some time for the magistrate to bring the court to order.

The magistrate said he would bind them over in sum of £50 to be of good behaviour for twelve months, in default of which to go to jail for six months.

Magistrate: ‘Do you intend to go to jail?’

O’Donovan: ‘We do not recognize this court.’

Ibar Parle read out the following…

‘Do you remember the background to this kind of thing?‘ he interrupts.

‘Not really.  What year are we in?’

‘Spring 1921, just before the British Empire agreed a truce with the old IRA.’

‘I don’t know about you, but our history classes in school leaped straight from the glorious Rising of 1916 to the glories of having our very own theocracy.’

He laughs. ‘I can’t quite hear the nuns putting it quite like that. And they must have taught you that after the rising Sinn Féin won the 1918  election by a landslide.  And then declared this massive margin in favour of their policies meant the Irish people had voted for an independent republic.’

‘I do remember that.  They set up an alternative government to run the country, ignoring the minor detail of the English government that was already there.’

‘As well as all the Irish people who had voted for any of the other parties.’

‘The British were scathing, I know.’

‘They weren’t the only ones. Plenty of the Irish too thought the whole thing a joke.  But they stopped laughing when the IRA – the Army of the new Irish republic – got started.’

‘Is that where the great-uncles come in? Soldiers of the Irish republic?’

He nods. ‘Read on.’

Ibar Parle read out the following statement: ‘We do not recognize any authority in this courtroom. The only authority we recognize is that of Dáil Éireann, elected by the free will of the Irish people. The British Government may dub it a crime to drill soldiers for the defence of Ireland but it is no crime in the eyes of the authority we recognize and to which we owe allegiance.’

At this, widespread applause broke out in the court. There were cries of ‘Up the Rebels!’ – ‘Good on you, Dan!’ – ‘See you in six months, Barney!’ Some members of the public began to sing ‘The Soldier’s Song’. The magistrate ordered the court to be cleared and an ugly conflict broke out as the police set to do  so with baton freely used. Many were injured in the melee.

‘So they were jailed together?’

‘Comrades and best friends, Margie says. But they took opposite sides after the treaty with England was signed. You and I talked about that, do you remember? Back in college?’

‘Did we?’

‘Yes, don’t you remember? My family voted for Fine Gael, yours for Fianna Fáil. And we wondered whether the bad feeling between them went back to the Civil War.’

For a second, I feel good that he remembers something I’ve forgotten. How stupid is that?

‘But it didn’t account for why they were so much at loggerheads,’ he goes on. ‘Other families were Fianna Fáilers and we weren’t expected to shun them like we were to avoid you and yours.’

‘It was something to do with Auntie Norah,’ I say, realising for the first time that this is something I’ve always known.

‘Possibly. Anyway I thought you might want this, if you’re going to dive into that suitcase.’

‘Hmmm.  Big if.’

He opens his mouth to say something and, changing his mind, takes a long swig of his drink instead. ‘Margie showed me your magazine too, your column.’

‘What? Really?’  My two worlds plough into each other.  I never thought of anyone in Mucknamore reading my column. Eventually I say, ‘It’s a living.’

‘A good one, I’d say.’

‘She’s a character, the person who writes that column.  She’s not me.’

‘I wondered why you don’t use your own name.’

Because, dear Rory, after the mess we made of matter how could Jo Devereux ever give anyone advice?  Instead I say, ‘It was Lauren, my editor’s, idea.  Sue Denim.  Get it? Pseudonym.’

‘Ouch!’

‘I know. That’s magazine land’s idea of wit, I’m afraid. Lauren was so chuffed with herself, I had to go with it.’

‘What about the actual work? Do you enjoy that?’

‘Enjoy?  I don’t know about enjoy.  I find it riveting at times – you wouldn’t believe the problems that arrive on my desk.’

‘Really?  I always thought they were made up.’

‘Everybody thinks that.’

But no. You couldn’t make it up, those tides of misery that were threatening to drown me before I left.

‘Quite flattering, I’d have thought, to have people see you as an oracle.’

‘What about you?’ I say, wanting Sue Denim and her world out of here.  ‘Are you still taking pictures?’

‘I had an exhibition a few years back, in the Dublin Bay Arts Centre. Black-and-white stills of deprived kids on special ed.  programs in Dublin. “Velvet Shoestring”, it was called. Except he Irish Times listed it as “Velvet G-String” so it didn’t quite attract the audience we were hoping for.’

I laugh. ‘You must show me the pictures. I’d love to see them.’

‘I don’t know where they are, up in an attic somewhere. Those kids were something else, though.’

‘And now?’

‘I thought the exhibition would give me impetus but the opposite happened… fewer and fewer pictures until…  It’s been more than four years since I picked up a camera.’

‘So? Pick it up again.’

‘I don’t even take photos of my own children.’

So he suffers too from my nemesis. Block, self sabotage, resistance, call it what you will. The daily exhaustion of forever failing yourself.  You wanna write? So write. That’s what Richard used to say. He made it sound so simple and when he was alive, living around the corner from me, that’s how it felt: not easy but simple. Just write, he would say and I just did. I filled notebooks with words and plans and poems. I had ideas. I was moving towards something, I could feel it. But now Richard is gone and I am all wound down. I have no writing, no man, no child, nothing I thought I’d have by now.  No child. Ah yes, there’s the rub.

‘Begin again,’ I repeat to Rory, knowing there’s nothing else for it, knowing – as only Sue Denim knows – how much easier it is to give advice than take it.

‘I just might,’ he says.  ‘Now you’re here.’

‘Me?‘ I feel the pink color turning in my face. It makes me speak harshly. ‘What’s it to do with me?’

‘I’ve been looking at these.‘  He reaches into his briefcase again. ‘I brought them along tonight for you to see. You can add them to the other pictures in the suitcase. ‘  He lays a large brown envelope on the bar counter between us. ‘Seeing them has made me want to bring the collection up to date.’

The flap is unsealed. I reach inside and bring out a sheaf of black-and-white photographs, all of the same young woman, doing all kinds of things –  in the park, at the beach, reading on a deckchair. And a set of black-and-whites where she is lying naked on a tousled bed. It takes me a minute to recognize her, then my hand flies up over my mouth. ‘Me? Jesus, Rory.’

He is laughing. ‘Don’t you like them?’

‘Look at her. My God, just look at her.’

‘I know. Gorgeous, isn’t she?’

So young. So unguarded. So trusting. Me but not me.

‘How can you say I haven’t changed?’ I say to him, staggered by her naivety, as I flick back  through the pictures, faster than I want because I am aware of his eyes on both of us, me and my young image. Each of these black-and-whites shows me in a different position: lying, sitting on the side of the bed, sheet folded strategically across my thigh in one shot, thrown emphatically aside in another.  I am flooded by the feelings we had for each other when he took them and I can’t look up. Once, I knew every inch of this man’s skin, the taste of his sweat, his spit and more. The time we had together is there between us but everything that happened since is also there, crowding it out. I feel like I am swaying on top of a wall.

I put them back in their envelope, shaken.

‘Jo.’ His voice is gentle as he leans across the counter towards me. ‘Why don’t you stay in Mucknamore? Stay for a while. Do what your mother wanted.  Resurrect the old secrets and put them to bed.’

‘I can’t, Rory.’

‘Why?’

I repeat the objections I’ve already raised with myself and try to explain how impossible it is for me to stay a second longer than I have to in Mrs D’s house.  How  memories I thought I’d sorted keep assailing me, hard and heavy as the day I put them away.  How her spirit is so solid here, a boulder pressing down on my ribs.  ‘I don’t know if I’ll even be able to last until the German couple come.’

‘What about staying at The Sea View or one of the B&Bs?’

I shudder. ‘Possibly even worse.’  The long looks of their owners slanting after me as I came in and out.  Intolerable.

‘You could stay in our place. We have a spare room.’

Is he crazy? A flash of anger whips through me.

‘OK, maybe not a great idea. Don’t look at me like that, Jo. It’s just that I’d say anything if I thought it would make you make you stay.’ He stares into his drink. ‘I don’t want you to go.’

‘You shouldn’t say things like that, Rory.’

‘I know. I know I shouldn’t. But I hate the thought of you disappearing again. I’d like if you could . . . if we could . . .  ’ He hesitates, takes a breath, plunges on. ‘I want to tell you something. I lied to you that first day. I don’t love living in Mucknamore. My family does but it’s killing me.’

‘Too small?’

He nods. ‘Too Mucknamore.’

My heart shudders. Stupid, treacherous heart.  It makes me say, ‘I lied too.’

‘Did you? Don’t you like San Francisco?’

‘It’s not that. I mean about everything being wonderful. Things aren’t wonderful, they’re a mess.’

He waits.

‘A while ago, I lost somebody.’

‘A boyfriend?’

‘No. But a dear friend. A special friend.’ It incenses me that there is no title for what Richard was to me. Friend, yes. And brother and mentor and therapist and cook and minder . . . He was my lover, in every way but the sexual, and meant more to me than many husbands do to their widows. ‘I loved him,’ I say. ‘He loved me.’

Overworn words that feel threadbare but it’s okay, Rory is looking past them, at me, and he understands. ‘So your mother dying now was a double blow?’

‘For a long time, it’s been one death after another.’ I check his face again. It’s still okay: no false sympathy, just a clear face held open to me. ‘Mrs D. now,’ I say. ‘Richard a while back.’ A long while, longer than I want to admit. ‘Before that, Auntie Norah. Before her, Gran. Daddy. And . . . you know . . . back then . . . ’

That brings on a small recoiling back from his skin, a flinch so small that few would see it.  I do — but I also see that his eyes are with me, still.  And his hands folded across the bar counter are open, small hairs curling round the edge of his shirt cuff.  What if he were to touch me, I think, and as I think it, that’s what he does.  He runs the outer edge of his index finger along my cheek.

‘Don’t,’ I say, pulling away, though I want to take the hand and hold it there forever.

How easily my traitor body rises to meet his but another part of me is appalled. He makes these moves so easily, as if he is not married at all, as if our not seeing each other for twenty years was some kind of accident. I try to fold myself back into place. On impulse, I decide to tell him what I have told nobody yet except Dee. ‘Remember when you came in to the bedroom, yesterday? And you remarked that I don’t look sick?’

He nods.

‘You were right, I’m not sick. Just vomiting all the time.’

He looks at me, blank. A woman would know immediately what I am trying to say.

‘Especially in the mornings.’

Still vacant.

‘Morning sickness.’

‘Oh . . . ’ The message gets through. ‘Oh. Oh my God, right. Yes. I see.’ His brain winds slowly around all the implications. ‘So that was why you threw up at the funeral . . . ’

‘Yep. Happens every morning. Not usually on other people, though.’

Lost in a spiky silence, he doesn’t smile. ‘The father?’ he asks.

‘Nobody. He doesn’t know.’ Everything we are saying bumps into the past.

‘Oh.’

I put a hand on my belly though there’s nothing to feel there, not yet. The changes are in other parts of me: the chaotic stomach, the tender breasts, the tiredness that seeps every muscle and bone at times. ‘I feel like that line of Oscar Wilde’s that everybody’s always misquoting,’ I say. ‘ “To conceive once, Ms Devereux, may be regarded as an accident but to conceive twice . . . ” ’

He is staring at me.

‘Even if there is twenty years between the two,’ I add.

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