Sisters face difficult decisions as events from the past threaten to send the entire family into freefallâ€¦ â€œWay beyond the realms of chicklitâ€¦great writing skills here and an enjoyable read.â€ (Evening Herald).
Synopsis: When Sheila gave birth to Claire she was just sixteen years of age. Persuaded by her family to give the baby up for adoption, this choice would affect her life â€“ and the lives of those she loved â€“ forever.
Two decades later, Sheila and her older sister, Eileen, face heartache. Eileenâ€™s cancer has returned and Sheila can no longer live with the decision she made all those years ago. She wants her daughter back.
Soon Sheilaâ€™s desperate yearning threatens to pull the family apart. Her marriage to Jimmy in under strain and her eldest son, Conor, is in serious trouble.
With her entire family in crisis, Sheila takes reckless measures to heal the wounds of the past. Then events take an unexpected turn, offering Sheila hope for the future, but she faces one final, life-changing choiceâ€¦
The sound of slow footsteps on the gravel path made Sheila glance up, through the rain-soaked window. It was Eileen, familiar in her dowdy mac and flat loafers, her battered handbag clasped protectively to her side, like an old woman. Then Sheila noticed something peculiar about her sisterâ€™s bearing that made her freeze, her hands suddenly idle in the sud-filled sink. Eileen held her head uncharacteristically erect and stared straight ahead, as though her thoughts were far removed from the few feet of gravel in front of her.
Intuitively, Sheila knew that something was wrong. Her thoughts turned to Claire, the instinct to protect her own unblunted after all these years. Had something happened to her? An accident? She sought for an answer in her sisterâ€™s inscrutable face.
Sheila dried her hands quickly. Her long red nails flashed amongst the folds of the towel, like unhealed wounds on the tips of her manicured fingers. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her right ear and adjusted her black silk-knit jumper, preparing herself.
â€œEileen, whatâ€™s wrong?â€ she blurted out as soon as her sister stepped into the kitchen.
Eileen did not answer at once but unbuttoned her navy raincoat slowly, shook it gently and draped it on the back of a pine chair before sitting down. Silvery droplets of rain spotted the kitchen floor.
â€œIs it Claire?â€ demanded Sheila, her voice suddenly shrill and anxious, â€œHas something happened to Claire?â€
Eileen shook her head. Sheilaâ€™s sigh of relief was audible.
â€œNo,â€ said Eileen wearily. â€œItâ€™s me, Sheila. Itâ€™s me.â€ A wry smile darted across Eileenâ€™s face. â€œItâ€™s me and that bloody cancer.â€
â€œOh,â€ said Sheila and she sat down abruptly in the chair opposite Eileen.
They sat silently for a few moments, the soft buzz of activity audible from other parts of the semi-detached house. Sheila prepared herself to be positive, upbeat even, as she waited for Eileen to speak. But she did not meet her eye. She already knew what she was going to say.
â€œYou know the way Iâ€™ve been exhausted lately?â€ said Eileen.
â€œToo tired some days even to get out of bed. And Iâ€™ve been losing weight â€“ not that I couldnâ€™t do with losing a stone,â€ she glanced down, â€œor two.â€
Sheila forced a thin smile and shook her head gently.
Eileen sighed softly and continued. â€œWell, Dr Crory thinks it â€¦ well, he thinks the cancer might have come back.â€
Fearing she would burst into tears, Sheila sought to keep Eileen talking while she composed herself. â€œDid he actually say that?â€ she responded quickly.
â€œNo, but as good as. He wants me to go for tests in Belfast as soon as possible. On Friday. He arranged it on the phone while I was in the surgery.â€
â€œFriday!â€ repeated Sheila, â€œBut thatâ€™s only three days away!â€
Eileen nodded, and folded her lips in on each other until they both disappeared.
Sheila sought desperately for words of comfort.
â€œWe donâ€™t know anything for sure yet, Eileen. And thereâ€™s no point worrying until we do. Heâ€™s probably just being thorough, sending you up there so promptly. Heâ€™s a good doctor, very conscientious. For goodness sake, we donâ€™t even know if it is cancer, and even if it is â€¦ well, you beat it before and youâ€™ll beat it again!â€
Eileen regarded her calmly, her brown eyes full of tears, and Sheila felt like the little sister she was.
â€œYou know as well as I do,â€ said Eileen gently, â€œthat the cancer never really goes away. Itâ€™s just in remission. We all knew this would happen one day. I just thought â€¦ I thought Iâ€™d have longer. Much longer than this â€¦â€
â€œYouâ€™re so brave, Eileen,â€ said Sheila and she put her hands out and enveloped Eileenâ€™s in hers. Her sisterâ€™s palms were rough in comparison to her own and the nails short and unpolished.
â€œIâ€™m not brave, Sheila. Iâ€™m not brave at all. To tell you the truth, Iâ€™m terrified. Iâ€™m just trying very hard not to show it.â€
The door to the kitchen burst open. It was Sheilaâ€™s middle son, Martin.
â€œHi, Auntie Eileen! Iâ€™m starving. Any chance of a sandwich, Mum?â€
Eileen put her hands to her face and swiftly brushed away two tears that had crept out of the corners of her eyes.
â€œCanâ€™t you see weâ€™re talking?â€ snapped Sheila, â€œYour tea will be ready soon. I donâ€™t want you spoiling it. Go on, out!â€ She glared at Martin and pointed at the door. â€œI said, out. Now.â€
â€œOK, OK,â€ said Martin indignantly as he backed out of the room, â€œKeep your shirt on, Mum. I was only asking.â€
The door closed again and Sheila turned her attention back to Eileen.
â€œDoes Claire know?â€ she asked softly.
Eileen shook her head.
â€œNo. Iâ€™m going to pretend Iâ€™m just going for a routine check-up. Thereâ€™s no point worrying them until we know one way or the other.â€
â€œOK,â€ said Sheila, â€œI understand. Did the doctor say what these tests would involve?â€
â€œThey want to do a mammogram to see if thereâ€™s anything there. And if they find a lump then theyâ€™ll need to remove it for analysis.â€
â€œJust a tiny bit of breast tissue. Dr Crory said it would be done under local anaesthetic.â€
â€œI see,â€ said Sheila, remembering the last time theyâ€™d been through this over four years ago.
She recalled the trauma of each hospital visit and the dreadful treatment Eileen had to endure. She remembered the first time sheâ€™d seen the scar where they'd removed Eileenâ€™s breast. How hard sheâ€™d tried not to recoil in horror and how Eileen had seen through her. The strain of being optimistic and cheerful in the face of the statistics. And then the sheer and utter relief when Eileen got the all-clear.
And now they were going to have to go through it again. Except this time maybe there would be no all-clear at the end â€¦ Sheila gave herself a mental prod in the back. She wouldnâ€™t allow herself to entertain morose sentiments. She had to be strong for Eileen.
â€œAnyway,â€ said Eileen, interrupting her thoughts, â€œIâ€™m not the only one who should be seeing a doctor. Have you been to see about your periods yet?â€
â€œThatâ€™s hardly a priority at the moment. Not until we get you sorted out â€¦â€
â€œNo, Iâ€™ve been thinking about it, Sheila. It might be a symptom of something serious. If Iâ€™ve got â€“ had â€“ cancer, well, they say it runs in families. You should get checked out. Just to be on the safe side.â€
A wave of panic swept over Sheila. Could she have cancer nestling deep inside, in the very heart of her? She told herself not to be so silly. There could be any number of explanations for her erratic and often absent periods. Sheâ€™d put it down to hormones. Sheâ€™d been emotional and weepy these last few months and she knew from her training as a nurse that symptoms of illness were often psychosomatic. The mind was sometimes more powerful than the body.
â€œIâ€™m not convinced itâ€™s anything serious, Eileen. But youâ€™re right. Iâ€™ll go to the doctor next week.â€
After Eileen had gone Sheila got on with the preparation of the meal. She set the table and tended the pots but her mind was elsewhere, racing ahead of events. What if the cancer had come back? What if Eileen couldnâ€™t fight it this time? She couldnâ€™t die without Claire knowing the truth. Eileen would have to tell her. But how would Claire react? Suddenly, after years of yearning for the truth to come out, Sheila wasnâ€™t sure she wanted it to. What if Claire rejected her and Jimmy?
The pot of potatoes boiled over, water hissing as it hit the gleaming hob.
â€œShit,â€ said Sheila.
She lifted the lid off the pot and the hissing subsided.
She told herself to stop getting carried away. She had Eileen dead and buried and she was only going for a check-up! And how selfish, concentrating on her own interests when she should be focusing on Eileen. There would be plenty of time to cross the other bridges. When they came to them.
Jimmy Gallagher watched as Bridget Kelly shoved the council papers into her large canvas shopping bag. As well as being his long-time friend, Bridget was the only other Catholic, and therefore Jimmyâ€™s ally, on the twelve-strong Ballyfergus council.
â€œCome on,â€ she said, â€œIâ€™ll give you a lift home.â€
Bridget was one of those fat women who carry their weight gracefully and, in spite of her girth, she glided effortlessly down the stairs and across the carpark. He followed her dumpy figure out of the council chambers reflecting with frustration on tonightâ€™s unproductive meeting, which had disintegrated, as usual, into sectarian bickering.
â€œThereâ€™s so much we should be doing and all we ever seem to do is argue over politics,â€ said Jimmy. â€œWe never even got round to talking about Redhill.â€
â€œWell, thatâ€™s the nature of local government in this country, dear. Look, donâ€™t be so down. Sure didnâ€™t we get the dry bar for teenagers up and running? The summer school activities last year had the best ever attendance figures. And weâ€™ll get Redhill redeveloped too.â€
â€œI suppose youâ€™re right.â€
They got in the car and drove off. Jimmy sighed and stared at the grainy grey night outside. Bridget was right of course. He mustnâ€™t let it get to him but he was disappointed in himself â€“ heâ€™d allowed himself to be sucked into an undignified squabble.
The car pulled up in front of the semi-detached house where Jimmy lived with his wife and three sons. The lights were on downstairs.
â€œGive my love to Sheila and the kids,â€ said Bridget. â€œThey all right?â€
â€œAye, fine. Conorâ€™s starting to be a bit of a handful, though. Answering his mother back when Iâ€™m not there â€“ that sort of thing.â€
â€œThatâ€™s boys for you, Jimmy. Girls are more of a worry but boys are harder to handle. My Seamus was a terror once he got into his teens but the girls were no bother. He grew out of it, mind, and now heâ€™s settled down with that wee Rosemary Clunie, happy as the day is long. You canâ€™t ask for more than that, now, can you?â€
â€œNo, indeed, you cannot. Thatâ€™s all I want for my boys, too. Just to be happily married, have kids. All the usual stuff. Though it would be nice if one of them became a millionaire and kept me in me old age!â€
Bridget laughed heartily.
â€œThanks for the lift, Bridget. Goodnight.â€
Thinking of his family put a spring in Jimmyâ€™s step and almost erased the frustration of the last few hours.
â€œAre you there, love?â€ he called, stepping gratefully into the warmth and smell of home.
There was no reply but the sound of the TV in the front room told him thatâ€™s where heâ€™d find the boys. He popped his head round the door. Danny and Martin, the two youngest, were sitting on the floor in their pyjamas. Conor lounged on the sofa. All three were engrossed in wrestling on TV.
â€œHello, boys,â€ said Jimmy.
Only Danny got up off the floor to greet him.
Martin said, â€œHello Dad,â€ and Conor grunted.
â€œDad, Dad, come and watch the wrestling,â€ said Danny excitedly, and he pulled him into the middle of the room.
â€œNot tonight, son. Anyway, shouldnâ€™t you boys be in bed?â€ he said sternly, and was greeted with a chorus of wails.
â€œAch, no, Dad,â€ said Danny, stamping his foot childishly even though he was nearly ten years old, â€œI want to watch the wrestling.â€
â€œItâ€™ll be over in ten minutes,â€ interrupted Conor. â€œSure they can go up then.â€
â€œAye, all right,â€ said Jimmy, suppressing the smile that Dannyâ€™s antics brought to his lips.
These boys would never know how much he loved them. Sometimes he longed to hold them in his arms like they were still babies but they hardly needed him now they were so grown up and independent. Only Danny would still come to him for a cuddle but he knew the days of that were numbered. Once he left primary school heâ€™d want to leave all that childishness behind him.
Sheila was in the kitchen, reading the evening paper over a cup of coffee, blonde hair fallen over her face like a veil.
â€œYou didnâ€™t fancy watching the wrestling then?â€ he asked.
She raised her head to reveal a pained expression on her face. Indicating the small black-and-white portable TV perched on the kitchen counter between the toaster and the sink she said, â€œThatâ€™s all I get to watch nowadays with four men in the house. They hog that TV morning, noon and night.â€
â€œMaybe we shouldnâ€™t let them watch so much,â€ he said.
â€œSure you canâ€™t stop them the age theyâ€™re at, especially Conor.â€
â€œWell, so long as theyâ€™re not falling behind with their homework.â€
Sheila bristled and Jimmy immediately regretted those words. He couldnâ€™t seem to get on the right side of her these days. She folded the paper sharply with a dry brittle crack.
â€œI take care of that,â€ she said and got up.
She rinsed her cup under the tap and placed it on the draining-board to dry. Then she turned and looked at him directly for the first time. Her emerald-green eyes were carefully made up as was the rest of her face, the brown eyebrows expertly shaped into two exquisite arches. He still thought her the most beautiful woman heâ€™d ever met.
â€œHow was the meeting tonight, then?â€ she asked.
â€œOh, the usual. You know,â€ said Jimmy noncommittally.
She nodded silently, disinterested.
â€œLook,â€ she said brusquely, changing the subject, â€œIâ€™ve got something to tell you. Itâ€™s about Eileen. Dr Crory wants her to go up to Belfast for a check-up on Friday. It sounds as though the cancerâ€™s come back.â€
She told him about Eileenâ€™s tiredness, weight loss and the mammogram.
It sounded bad all right. Poor Eileen â€“ what that girl had gone through! Jimmy shivered and glanced at Sheila. Thank God it hadnâ€™t happened to her â€“ he couldnâ€™t bear it.
â€œThe doctor must think itâ€™s serious to get her referred so quickly,â€ he said.
â€œThatâ€™s what I thought,â€ said Sheila, gloomily. â€œAnd I canâ€™t go with her either â€“ Iâ€™ve got to work Friday.â€
â€œListen, love, Iâ€™m sorry,â€ said Jimmy and he put his arm out to comfort Sheila but she crouched down suddenly and opened the oven door.
â€œSit down at the table and have your dinner before itâ€™s ruined,â€ she said briskly. â€œIâ€™d better go over and see Eileen now.â€
As he obeyed a little stab of pain went through Jimmyâ€™s heart. Over the last few months Sheila had been avoiding intimacy with him â€“ it was almost as though she couldnâ€™t bear him to touch her. And mentally she was shutting herself off from him as well. They used to be soul mates. And the frustrating thing was that he couldnâ€™t remember exactly when things had started to go wrong. Little by little the crack between them had widened until now it seemed like a chasm.
Sheila placed a plate in front of him and removed the metal foil covering it. White curls of steam escaped from a hearty stew.
â€œAnyway,â€ she went on, as he began to eat, â€œwe donâ€™t know for sure that it is cancer. It could be something else. So donâ€™t go saying anything to Paddy or Claire until we find out.â€
Jimmy nodded his agreement.
Sheila put the metal foil in the bin, her cup in a cupboard and the oven gloves in a drawer. Then she wiped round the spotless sink with the dishcloth. After checking there was nothing else to be done she sat down opposite Jimmy.
â€œI thought you said you were going over to Eileenâ€™s,â€ he said, between mouthfuls.
â€œI am,â€ she answered, â€œ but I want to talk to you about Conor first.â€
â€œHe came home again today with his shirt ripped and when I asked him how itâ€™d happened he wouldnâ€™t tell me.â€
â€œSure thatâ€™s just boysâ€™ horseplay.â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s more than that, Iâ€™m sure of it. Heâ€™s been asking for extra money for school lunches and when I ask him what he's done with his allowance he wonâ€™t tell me.â€
â€œWhat do you thinking heâ€™s spending it on? Girly magazines?â€
â€œI donâ€™t think heâ€™s spending it on anything. I think somebodyâ€™s taking it off him.â€
Jimmy stopped eating and looked quizzically at Sheila.
â€œWhat are you saying?â€ he asked.
â€œI think heâ€™s being bullied.â€
Jimmy put his knife and fork down and considered this. True, Conor had always been a quiet, gentle child but Jimmy had worked hard to build up the boysâ€™ confidence. He spent time with them, teaching them the skills theyâ€™d need to survive in a cruel world. Was it possible his son was a victim? He found it hard to believe.
â€œHave you asked him about it?â€ asked Jimmy.
â€œI tried to but he wonâ€™t talk to me.â€
â€œAnd heâ€™s more likely to talk to you than me,â€ observed Jimmy, dryly.
â€œTrue, but it wouldnâ€™t do any harm to try,â€ said Sheila, lifting Jimmyâ€™s cleared plate.
â€œOK, Iâ€™ll try. You go over to Eileenâ€™s and Iâ€™ll have a word with Conor. Weâ€™ll see if we canâ€™t get to the bottom of this.â€
Aiden Oâ€™Neill woke up shivering. The sheet was wrapped round his naked body several times and the blankets had somehow found their way onto the floor. He got out of bed gingerly and rearranged the bedcovers before getting back under them. He lay quite wide awake now, and waited for his body-heat to warm the bed.
Heâ€™d had another broken nightâ€™s sleep but that was something Aiden had got used to over the years. That and the nightmares. They were rarely exactly the same, though they all induced the same terror and anxiety that overwhelmed him. Sometimes heâ€™d wake up sobbing like a child and it was then he realised he was completely alone.
The best part of each day was that precious moment on wakening when his mind was a complete blank. Heâ€™d tried to prolong the experience but could not prevent himself from remembering. As soon as it was conscious, his brain would seek out the memories, faces, references by which it defined Aiden Oâ€™Neill, age thirty, bachelor and loner. The rest of the time Aiden spent consciously focusing on the here and now, avoiding the painful memories that haunted him and marred his experience of life.
He looked about the miserable little room and wondered what it would be like to wake up somewhere where you were safe and happy, with a woman you loved lying beside you. Somewhere that, when you realised who and where you were, you actually smiled and thought, â€œYeah, life is great. This is where I want to be.â€
â€œSod it,â€ said Aiden angrily, throwing back the heavy blankets and jumping out of bed.
He wasnâ€™t going to let a bout of depression drag him down. Not today. Today he was going to do something positive. He was due money from Social Services for the three weeks heâ€™d been unemployed when heâ€™d first come to Ballyfergus. The giro should have been through by now and he could do with the money.
He showered in the bathroom he shared with two other lodgers on the same floor, changed and put on fresh clothes. He forced himself to notice that, in spite of the cold, it was sunny outside â€“ the first sign of spring. In his room he boiled up a pot of tea and ate the remains of a loaf of bread spread with marmalade. Then he was ready to face the world with a smile on his face if not in his heart.
The Social Security Office was an ugly grey block of a building built in the 1970â€™s. Surrounded by high wire fencing and a security gate it looked as inviting as a police station.
Aiden gave his name to the receptionist and joined the subdued claimants in the waiting-room for the optimistically named â€œJob Seekerâ€™s Allowance.â€ He found the wait quite pleasant â€“ it was warm and dry and people-watching provided a diversion by which to pass the time. He studied the overweight, coughing, wheezing claimants and thought they were more like patients in a doctorâ€™s waiting-room than a potential workforce actively seeking employment. Eventually his name was called.
The girl behind the counter, who looked like she was barely out of her teens, asked him to sit down. He sat and explained why he was there.
Competently, she punched his details into the keyboard on the desk in front of her and waited for the computer to respond. Up close she was pretty. Her eyes were greeny-blue, the colour of the sea on a cloudy day, and her shoulder-length brown hair looked freshly washed. Aiden had a sudden urge to lean over and smell it. â€˜Ms C Oâ€™Connorâ€™ said her name badge, giving little away. He wondered what her name was â€“ Cathy, Catriona, Catherine, Cassandra? He laughed to himself â€“ no she didnâ€™t look like a Cassandra. And she looked too young to be a â€˜Mrsâ€™.
Ms Oâ€™Connor knitted her eyebrows into a frown and he could see the lines of computer text reflected in her dilated pupils.
â€œHmm . . .â€ she said and turned her gaze on him, â€œthere seems to be a bit of a problem, Mr Oâ€™Neill. Your details went on the system all right but I think because you came off the Job Seekerâ€™s Allowance after only three weeks somehow your payments got cancelled. Iâ€™ll have to get someone from the payments office to look into it and phone you. When would be a good time?â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™m working shifts now so Iâ€™m not sure â€¦â€
â€œOh, where are you working?â€ she asked brightly.
Her interest and smile were genuine and uncharacteristic of the breed, thought Aiden. As a Social Security employee she was supposed to be unfriendly and unhelpful â€“ at least that had been Aidenâ€™s experience to date. Her directness and naivety were attractive qualities, he decided. No doubt in a few years theyâ€™d have that knocked out of her.
â€œIâ€™m on the ferries,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™m a steward.â€
â€œDo you have to do the night boats as well?â€
â€œSomebody has to,â€ he replied.
â€œRight,â€ she said, and he was immediately sorry heâ€™d been short. â€œWell, Iâ€™m really sorry about this delay with your giro. Weâ€™ll get it sorted as soon as we can. Now when did you say would be a good time to call?â€
â€œI didnâ€™t,â€ he replied. â€œLook, Iâ€™ll leave you my landladyâ€™s number. I donâ€™t have a phone in my room. But you can leave a message there for me.â€
â€œOK. Thank you, Mr Oâ€™Neill.â€
He turned to go but couldnâ€™t resist asking her.
â€œMs Oâ€™Connor,â€ he said, â€œwhat does the â€˜Câ€™ on your badge stand for? Only Iâ€™ve been trying to guess.â€
â€œOh,â€ she said and she looked down at the badge above her left breast as though noticing it for the first time, â€œit stands for Claire.â€ She blushed and looked around her. â€œThough strictly speaking Iâ€™m not supposed to tell you. Security and all that.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry, your secretâ€™s safe with me, Claire,â€ he said and left.
â€œWhatâ€™re you doing telling him your name?â€ said Deirdre, across the table in the staff room.
Claire watched her friend grimace before taking a bite of brown sandwich filled with salad. The pause allowed Claire time to decide how to answer.
â€œWho?â€ she said, affecting indifference, as she concentrated on peeling an orange.
â€œOh, donâ€™t come over all innocent with me. That Oâ€™Neill guy. I heard you,â€ said Deirdre triumphantly.
â€œHe only asked,â€ replied Claire, somewhat defensively.
â€œAnd youâ€™ve been mooning around all morning. Since you interviewed him in fact.â€
â€œDonâ€™t be daft, Deirdre. Heâ€™s just a client.â€
â€œJesus,â€ said Deirdre all of a sudden, â€œIâ€™m sick of these healthy sandwiches. Give me chicken mayo any day. Two months Iâ€™ve been on this stupid diet and Iâ€™ve hardly lost any weight!â€
She got up and threw the remains of her lunch into the bin with a vengeance. She returned to the table, removed a Mars bar from her lunchbox and, with a satisfied air, took a bite.
Claire stifled a giggle. â€œWhat did you think of him?â€ she asked at last.
Deirdre answered immediately, between mouthfuls, as though sheâ€™d been anticipating the question. â€œNot my type. A bit too skinny. But he did have nice eyes, all dark and broody like.â€ She paused and then, screwing up her face, added, â€œBut heâ€™s a bit old, isnâ€™t he?â€
â€œHeâ€™s thirty. Thatâ€™s only nine, no, eight years older than me seeing as itâ€™s my birthday soon.â€
â€œYou really do fancy him, donâ€™t you?â€ said Deirdre.
â€œI thought he was nice. Thatâ€™s all.â€
â€œBut heâ€™s unemployed.â€
â€œNo, heâ€™s not. He works on the ferries as a steward. He only came in to see about money heâ€™s due from before.â€
Someone came into the room, effectively ending the conversation.
â€œCome on, weâ€™d better get back. Itâ€™s past one,â€ said Deirdre.
The rest of the day was uneventful and Claire was glad when the hands of the clock finally crawled round to five oâ€™clock.
On the bus home, she sat by the window looking out as it chugged and spluttered through the town. The rhythm was soothing, almost hypnotic, and her thoughts wandered to Aiden Oâ€™Neill, just as they had done a hundred times that afternoon. She knew he wasnâ€™t from Ballyfergus but apart from that she knew very little about him. Heâ€™d made his claim for Job Seekerâ€™s Allowance six weeks ago so that was how long he must have been in town. Sheâ€™d never seen him before, that was certain, for she wouldnâ€™t have forgotten him in a hurry.
She alighted at her stop and walked the short distance in the dusk to the house. She thought of her mum and wondered what she would make of Aiden. Not a lot probably â€“ sheâ€™d think he wasnâ€™t good enough for her. Mum had these daft notions about Claire marrying above herself, to a doctor or a lawyer. God knows where she got her ideas from. Claire just wanted to be happy and in love and she couldnâ€™t think of a better reason for marrying than that.
Inside, Claire shouted a greeting up the hall before going up to her room where she changed into comfortable jeans and a top. Downstairs, her dad was sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper. He smiled and looked up when she came in.
â€œHello, love,â€ he said, in his gentle voice. â€œHow was work?â€
So she sat down and told him about her day, omitting any mention of Aiden Oâ€™Neill, while her mum Eileen served pork chops, applesauce, potatoes and carrots.
After her dad said grace quickly, they began to eat.
â€œAre you going out tonight?â€ Claire asked her father.
â€œAye, I was thinking about going to the Club for a jar or two,â€ he replied.
â€œUgh, Dad! Iâ€™m going with Deirdre and Jacqui! Mum, tell him he canâ€™t go!â€
He chuckled and they both looked at Eileen but she appeared not to be listening.
â€œEileen, love, are you all right?â€ he said.
â€œWhat? Yes, Iâ€™m fine. What were you saying?â€
â€œTell Dad he canâ€™t go to the Social Club tonight. Iâ€™m going with my friends. Thereâ€™s a band playing. Youâ€™ll hate it, Dad.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure your father wonâ€™t cramp your style, will you, Paddy? Not unless youâ€™re man-hunting,â€ she said, sharing a conspiratorial smile with him.
â€œOh, Mum!â€ exclaimed Claire in disgust and they all laughed.
Afterwards, Claire went upstairs and got ready. She decided on flared jeans and a tight T-shirt with high heels, put on heavier make-up than she wore during the day and brushed her hair. A spot of lippy and she was ready to go.
Downstairs, her dad was watching the TV in the front room. She found Eileen in the kitchen, sitting perfectly still with her folded hands resting on the kitchen table. The dishes had been washed and left to dry on the draining-board and the rest of the kitchen was as tidy as usual, that is to say not tidy at all.
â€œMum, are you all right?â€ asked Claire.
â€œMmm, Iâ€™m fine, love. Just fine. Oh, let me see you. You look nice.â€
â€œItâ€™s just that you seem a bit â€¦â€ Claire sought for the right word, â€œa bit preoccupied. Youâ€™re not worrying about that check-up tomorrow, are you? I thought you said it was just routine.â€
â€œWorried? Me?â€ said her mum, too brightly. â€œDonâ€™t be daft. Now you get along or youâ€™ll be late.â€
Before Claire had the opportunity to quiz her further, Aunt Sheila came through the back door. Her face lit into a broad smile when she saw Claire.
â€œYou look lovely,â€ she said admiringly. â€œOff out?â€
â€œYes, and sheâ€™s going to be late if she doesnâ€™t get a move on,â€ said Eileen, shooing Claire out into the hallway.
Eileen was relieved when she shut the door behind Claire. Sometimes the child was too perceptive for comfort. Illogically she found Sheilaâ€™s appearance at that precise moment irritating. She couldnâ€™t put her finger on why.
Sheila was waiting for her in the kitchen.
â€œYou havenâ€™t told them then?â€ she asked.
â€œSshh,â€ said Eileen putting her forefinger to her lips and gently closing the door on the noise of the TV. â€œNo, I told you I wouldnâ€™t,â€ she said in her normal voice, once she was satisfied Paddy could not hear them, â€œbut I think Claireâ€™s guessed somethingâ€™s wrong. Itâ€™s my fault. Iâ€™ve probably been acting strangely. To tell you the truth, Iâ€™m worried sick about tomorrow.â€
â€œIâ€™ve had a headache all day. I feel as though thereâ€™s this terrible weight on my head making everything all foggy.â€
â€œHave you taken anything for it? Iâ€™ve some painkillers in the house,â€ said Sheila, making a move for the back door.
â€œNo, itâ€™s all right, Iâ€™ve got something here,â€ said Eileen, rummaging in the back of a cupboard. â€œHe usually keeps â€¦ ah, here we are,â€ she said, emerging with a half-bottle of Jamesonâ€™s whisky in her hand. â€œWant some?â€
Sheila shook her head in a way that conveyed her disapproval as her sister poured a generous measure into a tumbler.
â€œCheers,â€ said Eileen and took a large swig, feeling reckless.
The taste was unfamiliar and vile and, when she swallowed, the fiery liquid burned her gullet. Undeterred, she took another swig. It was only a means to an end, she told herself, and that end was to get some relief from the pain inside her head.
The noise of the TV stopped and they heard Paddy heave himself off the sofa. Guiltily, Eileen hid the bottle and glass in the cupboard.
â€œDidnâ€™t hear you come in,â€ he said to Sheila, entering the kitchen. â€œIs Jimmy going down the Club later on?â€
â€œI think so. Heâ€™s out at some meeting about Redhill. I donâ€™t know what time heâ€™ll be back.â€
â€œRedhill, thatâ€™s that old estate out by Carrickdun, isnâ€™t it?â€ said Paddy.
â€œYes, the council are thinking of opening it to the public, restoring the gardens and holiday cottages. Theyâ€™re talking about holding open-air concerts there in the summer.â€
â€œThat would be nice all right,â€ said Paddy. He looked at the clock on the wall and went on, â€œWell, I think Iâ€™ll head on down there myself. You donâ€™t mind, do you, love?â€
â€œNo, of course not,â€ said Eileen hurriedly. â€œYou go on and enjoy yourself. Me and Sheila are just going to have a cup of tea.â€
Paddy moved towards Eileen and she held her breath while he kissed her on the lips. After heâ€™d left she finished the remaining whisky in the glass she had hidden and poured herself another one.
Unable to contain herself any longer Sheila ventured, â€œEileen, I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s helping matters.â€
â€œWhat do you know about it?â€ snapped Eileen. â€œYouâ€™re not the one going for the mammogram. Youâ€™re not the one facing the prospect of telling Paddy and Claire â€¦â€
Her voice trailed off as she covered her face with her hands. Sheâ€™d hardly eaten at tea-time and the whisky was taking effect quickly, releasing the emotions sheâ€™d pent up so effectively these last few days. She felt the light weight of Sheilaâ€™s arm around her shoulders and she sobbed quietly for a few moments.
She looked up when sheâ€™d composed herself and went on, â€œItâ€™s not me Iâ€™m worried for, Sheila. Itâ€™s Paddy and Claire. I donâ€™t think Paddy would be able to cope without me. And what about Claire? Oh, God, I always thought Iâ€™d be there to see her married, have children. Itâ€™s so unfair.â€
â€œSteady on, Eileen,â€ said Sheila. â€œWe donâ€™t know anything for sure yet. And as for Claire, Iâ€™ll always be there for her. And Paddy.â€
â€œI have a bad feeling about tomorrow,â€ said Eileen, choosing to ignore the last remark. â€œI just know theyâ€™re going to find something.â€
â€œEileen,â€ said Sheila crossly, â€œwill you stop talking yourself into a hole. And give me that,â€ she said, snatching the glass out of Eileenâ€™s hand and throwing the contents down the sink. â€œThe last thing you need in the morning is a hangover.â€
Eileen sighed heavily and ran her fingers through her hair. â€œI feel so helpless. I just want it over and done with.â€
â€œAnd it will be. Tomorrow,â€ said Sheila firmly. â€œSo thereâ€™s no point torturing yourself about it now.â€
She paused and they were both silent for some moments. Sheila looked at her reflection in the window, then at her nails and then directly at Eileen. She seemed to be summoning up the courage to speak.
â€œAbout Claire,â€ she said cautiously, â€œIâ€™ve been thinking about something for a while now. Donâ€™t you think â€¦â€
â€œDid I ever tell you the whole story about me and Paddy?â€ interrupted Eileen, emboldened by the whisky and uncomfortable with her sisterâ€™s tone of voice and the direction of the conversation. Without waiting for a reply she got up and filled another glass, ignoring Sheilaâ€™s protestations.
â€œCome on through to the lounge,â€ she said.
Sheila followed her.
â€œI got this job as a temporary clerk in MacMasterâ€™s,â€ said Eileen, settling down on the green velour sofa. â€œYouâ€™ll remember them, that haulage firm on the Shore Road that went bust a couple of years ago.â€
Sheila nodded. She sat down in the armchair and pulled her legs up under her, curled up like a cat.
â€œThatâ€™s where you met Paddy,â€ she said.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t have looked at him, you know, only he was so different from the other lorry drivers. He never swore or read dirty magazines, not in front of me anyway, and he took the time to talk to me. You know, asked me what I thought about things. To the rest of the men I was just a bit of skirt. I remember when he asked me out for the first time. He was hanging around waiting for the others to leave and I kept asking if he wanted something and he kept saying, â€˜Noâ€™.â€ Eileen laughed at the memory. â€œAnd then, when there was just the two of us left in the office and I was about to lock up, he blurts out, â€˜Will you go out with me?â€™ And I was so shocked, it was so unexpected, that I just stood there like an idiot with the keys in my hand.â€
â€œBut you said â€˜Yesâ€™, didnâ€™t you?â€ said Sheila.
â€œOh, aye, and you couldnâ€™t get us apart after that.â€
Eileen paused, took another swig of whiskey and gasped before going on.
â€œIt was his mother told him about me, you know, when she realised we were serious about each other. I donâ€™t think she meant any harm by it â€“ she just didnâ€™t want Paddy to get hurt. Sheâ€™d remembered from the papers at the time that the doctors said I wouldnâ€™t be able to have children when I grew up.â€
Sheila uncurled her legs and sat upright, listening attentively.
â€œSo you know what Paddy did? He never said a word to me, he didnâ€™t. He went up to the Ballyfergus Times office and asked to go through their archives and read about it for himself. And I donâ€™t think to this day he would have raised it, if I hadnâ€™t.â€
â€œHow did you tell him?â€ asked Sheila.
â€œHeâ€™d asked me to marry him and I knew I had to tell him then. You couldnâ€™t keep a thing like that a secret in a marriage. We were out for a walk on the promenade and Iâ€™d been summoning up the courage all week to tell him. I didnâ€™t know how heâ€™d react, you see. Weâ€™d never talked about children.
â€œAnyway, we stopped and sat down on a bench and I said that I had something to tell him. And he never said a word. He just nodded and stared straight ahead. So I told him everything I could remember and everything Iâ€™d been told about it afterwards, and how I couldnâ€™t have children because the knife had damaged my insides so badly. And all the time he just sat there listening and never said a word.â€
â€œAnd then? How did he react? What did he say?â€ gasped Sheila, her hand over her mouth.
â€œI could tell he was trying to contain himself for he didnâ€™t say anything for a while. And when he did, at last, speak he said, â€™I knowâ€™. And then he went on to tell me how heâ€™d found out, and that he loved me and how it didnâ€™t matter to him so long as he had me. He said if he ever got hold of the bastard that did it heâ€™d kill him with his bare hands, but he knew he was locked up somewhere for life, and you couldnâ€™t let hate like that destroy your life. And he said how proud he was of me, that Iâ€™d survived it. Do you know itâ€™s the most Iâ€™ve ever heard Paddy say all in one go. And he never mentioned it again after that. We were married that summer.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t know that,â€ said Sheila. â€œAbout Paddy, I mean.â€
â€œNo,â€ said Eileen, â€œthereâ€™s a lot of things we never told you. You were only sixteen when we got married and, well, Mum wanted to protect you. Thatâ€™s why she didnâ€™t tell you about me until â€¦ she had to.â€ Eileen looked at the floor and then went on. â€œDo you remember how Mum was dead set against Paddy? She thought a lorry driver wasnâ€™t good enough for me and that he was too old. But heâ€™s done all right by me â€“ heâ€™s been a good husband and a good father to Claire.â€ She looked up, catching Sheilaâ€™s eye. â€œBut he depends on me. Completely. Itâ€™s him I worry about most.â€
Sheila nodded in agreement and asked, â€œHave you told Mum about tomorrow?â€
â€œNo, but I should. I just canâ€™t face it tonight. Would you do it for me?â€
Sheila let herself into the house by the back door. All was in darkness and silent â€“ Jimmy must still be at the Club. The kitchen was as sheâ€™d left it, spotlessly neat and tidy. She never could understand Eileenâ€™s sloppy ways round the house â€“ it was as though she took no pride in her home. Not for the first time sheâ€™d had to resist the urge to give the place a good going over.
She went upstairs and checked the sleeping boys, kissing each one gently on the cheek. Then she got ready for bed and reflected on what Eileen had told her. After all these years there were still secrets emerging, little details about her life that, as her sister, she should have known. But the six-year age gap between her and Eileen had ensured they would never be really close, as did the history between them.
Then she remembered her promise to Eileen to call her mum.
The phone was answered within two rings.
â€œWhatâ€™re you doing phoning me at this hour?â€ asked Moira Devlin irritably.
â€œSure you donâ€™t go to bed â€˜til all hours. So, whatâ€™s the problem?â€ said Sheila, thinking that her mother was getting very set in her ways. â€œLook, never mind that now, Mum, Iâ€™ve something to tell you. Itâ€™s not good news. Eileen has to go up to Belfast tomorrow, to the hospital. They want to check that the cancerâ€™s still in remission.â€
â€œYou mean itâ€™s come back!â€
â€œNo, we donâ€™t know that yet, Mum, thatâ€™s why she has to have the mammogram,â€ said Sheila cheerfully, not sure if she could face another emotionally wrought conversation this evening. â€œEileen would have told you herself except sheâ€™s a bit knackered and sheâ€™s gone to bed. I donâ€™t think she wanted to talk about it any more.â€
â€œI see. Howâ€™re Claire and Paddy taking the news?â€
â€œThey donâ€™t know. Eileen didnâ€™t want to tell them just yet. You know what Paddyâ€™s like â€“ heâ€™d be worried sick.â€
â€œWell, thank God Eileen has Claire anyway,â€ said Moira. â€œThat girl is so dear to her. Itâ€™ll give her a reason to fight this thing.â€
Sheila bristled. Why did her mum feel the need to remind her how precious Claire was to Eileen? Wasnâ€™t she precious to Sheila too?
â€œIf the cancerâ€™s come back, Mum. The mammogram in itself wonâ€™t tell us that. Itâ€™ll only show if thereâ€™s a lump.â€
â€œAnd if they find one?â€
â€œTheyâ€™ll have to take it out to see whether itâ€™s benign or not.â€
â€œOh, my God,â€ said Moira.
â€œLetâ€™s not worry until we have something to worry about, eh?â€ said Sheila gently, sensing her motherâ€™s rising panic.
â€œItâ€™s not good though, is it, Sheila? I mean, with her having cancer before and all.â€
â€œI know, Mum. But we just have to wait and see and try to remain positive. Look, Iâ€™ve got to work on Friday. Can you go with her to the hospital?â€
â€œIf she wants me too.â€
When Sheila came off the phone she brushed her teeth and went to the toilet. Her period should have come months ago. She thought about her conversation with Eileen earlier in the week â€“ it was time she made that appointment to see the doctor.