Louise Redmond left Ireland for London before she was twenty. Now, more than two decades later, her heart already breaking from a failing marriage, she is summoned home. Her mother is on her deathbed, and it is Louise's last chance to learn the whereabouts of a father she never knew.
Stubborn to the end, Marjorie refuses to fill in the pieces of her daughter's fragmented past. Then Louise unexpectedly finds a lead. A man called David Prescott . . . but is he really the father she's been trying to find? And who is the mysterious little girl who appears so often in her dreams? As each new piece of the puzzle leads to another question, Louise begins to suspect that the memories she most treasures could be a delicate web of lies.
The little girl is underdressed for the cold night. No coat, just a jumper
and pleated skirt, and knee socks that struggle to stay up as she canters
along the pavement towards the green postbox, clutching the letter she
has written to an old man with a white beard in a snowy, distant land
Around the square, curtains are closed against the cold and the dark.
The street lights cast their beams as far as they can, but between each
wooden pole there is a dark space that momentarily eclipses the child,
causing your heart to miss a beat each time she disappears from view.
She’s at the postbox now, looking up at the slot that she can only reach
by standing on tiptoe. She stretches and strains to push the envelope
towards the oblong mouth of the box. You watch. And wait.
Outside, the light is fading across the stretch of the extended
town, past the estates towards the farmland and low hills beyond.
My mother, no longer conscious, is also fading. The nurses
haven’t spelled it out in so many words, but everything they
say makes me think she is close to the end.
‘Talk to her,’ the nurses say. ‘She’ll hear you. The hearing is
the last thing to go.’
So I talk to her in a low voice, mostly about long ago when
I was a child because that was the time we were closest. I talk
about our outings to the sea, the two of us walking down to
Amiens Street Station and taking the train to Skerries, where
we would change into our bathing costumes and run as fast as
we could into the waves so that there was no time to change
our minds. Sometimes we went further, taking the train all the
way to Drogheda and then a bus to Clogherhead.
I remind her of how hungry we used to be after our dips in
the cold water, so hungry that it didn’t matter that somehow the
sand always found its way into the sandwiches she had packed.
She would point into the distance at the Mourne Mountains,
miles away to the north. And always, before we went back home,
we would walk to the harbour to watch the seals that followed
the fishing boats in from the sea.
Those memories are real, as real as everything I see before
me now, except that the colours are muted, old-fashioned. They
almost have a smell to them, the way the dark green of the
old double-decker buses that carried us about seemed to have
a smell to it.
I talk on, hoping she can still hear, losing myself in those
memories as I recall them, so that the sound my mother makes
– a ssshhh sound, repeated over and over – comes as a shock. At
first, I think she’s saying, ‘Shush,’ telling me to be quiet. But
there’s distress in the sound, as if there’s something more she’s
trying to get out but can’t.
‘What is it, Mamma? What are you trying to say?’ I ask her
gently, but there’s no answer, only the ssshhh, again and again.
Eventually, the effort of it is too great for her and she sighs and
lapses back into silence. I watch and wait. She is so calm now
that I don’t even notice the point at which she finally stops
Hours later, morning is creeping through a gap in the curtains
into the dark bedroom where I’ve lain awake through what was
left of the night. I’m frantic, physically and mentally, my body
trying to find a place in the bed that will bring some rest, my
head trying to keep track of the thoughts that dart like arrows
And, as if from a shell picked up on the beach and held to
the ear, I keep hearing that sound she made before she died, the
ssshhh sound. I hear it over and over again, ebbing and flowing,
relentless in its rhythm, haunting and tormenting.
I can’t bear to think that something I said might have penetrated
her unconscious state to hurt her. We had our moments,
my mother and I, but even at those times when I thought I had
come close to hating her I knew that there was no escaping the
bond we had.
I talked to her about memories last night. I don’t know
whether she heard me or not. But there’s another memory that
I didn’t bring up because it hurt her once, a memory that has
punctuated most of my life and that I have never understood.
It surfaces now, unbidden, and I see a green postbox and a
small hand stretching upwards to push an envelope into its
oblong mouth. The edges of the image are blurred. It’s as if
someone has opened an old tarnished locket to reveal a silent
film playing in slow motion inside. It’s always the same. It plays
over and over, the little hand never in any position but extending
upwards, the envelope always held in those childish fingers, the
mouth of the green postbox almost within reach.
And then, as strangely as it has appeared, the grainy image
fades, leaving me puzzled and slightly disturbed, even a little
I am never sure whether that small hand is mine. But if not
My mother’s coffin stands in front of the altar. It felt strange to
leave her there through the night, alone in the locked church.
The last time she was here was for Dermot’s funeral. She wasn’t
religious. ‘You don’t need religion to be a good person,’ she used
to say. She didn’t leave any instructions for her own funeral
and probably wouldn’t have been too bothered if we had told
her we were going to put her body into a cardboard box and
tip it from a boat into the sea. The funeral is for me, because
I need something beautiful and soft and hopeful to take away
the memory of that terrible last night in the hospital. So the
choir sings Fauré’s Requiem, because, with no Dies Irae, no day of
judgement, it’s the sweetest, gentlest requiem of all, and as we
all shuffle to the altar for Communion the choir sings Duruflé’s
‘Ubi Caritas et Amor’.
We leave the church for the graveyard. It’s cold and wet,
a typical November day in Ireland, but when the undertaker
indicates one of the funeral cars I shake my head. I want to
walk behind my mother on her final journey. Ursula, my friend
since childhood, walks beside me.
A couple of relatives have turned up: my mother’s older
brother and his middle-aged son. We haven’t spoken yet. They
weren’t part of my life when I was growing up, though I had
known of their existence. Now, I have only the mildest curiosity
It’s the Keaveneys, Dermot’s people, I think of as my family,
even though I’m not related to them, and they’re out in
force—Angela and her husband, Joe, and their daughters and
grandchildren. I’ve kept my eyes on the coffin all through the
prayers at the graveside, but when it’s finally lowered I can
barely see anything because rain and tears are blurring my
Ronan, Angela’s grandson, tugs at my sleeve and puts his
little hand into mine.
‘Don’t cry, Auntie Lou,’ he says, his big eyes looking up at
me from a face filled with a kindness you don’t expect from a
This makes me cry even more and his mother, Lizzie, squeezes
my shoulder and tries to move Ronan away, but he keeps his
grip of my hand and refuses to let it go.
‘He’s fine,’ I tell Lizzie.
After the burial, there’s a reception at one of the local hotels
and, with the worst of the funeral over and having downed a
large glass of wine, I begin to emerge from the fog that has
enveloped me over the past few days, the fog that has softened
the longing to call Sandy. Now, my mind clear but filled with
pain and loss, I am desperate to hear his voice. I slip outside to
a courtyard and dial his number.
The lack of expression in his voice hurts me almost as much
as the loss of my mother does. The end of a marriage is another
kind of bereavement and I’m still in mourning for it.
‘Sandy, I . . . my . . .’ I start choking. I can’t finish what I’m
trying to say.
‘Louise, what’s wrong?’
‘My mother died.’
‘When? What happened?’
‘A few days ago. It was lung cancer but it was very fast. We
had no idea anything was wrong. I should have told you. I’m
sorry – I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.’
‘Oh, God, I’m sorry. I wish I’d known. Where are you now?’
‘In Ireland. We buried her today.’
‘Would you like me to come over? Is there anything I can do?’
‘It’s all right . . . it’s over now. There’s not a lot else to be
done at the moment. I’m not going to stay much longer. I can
come back another time to sort her stuff out.’
‘Are you staying with Angela?’
‘Yes. She’s been great.’
‘Will you let me know when you’re back?’
‘Okay. I think I’d better go now. There are lots of people . . .
I have to talk to them.’
‘Call me when you’re back. Okay?’
There’s a faint thudding going on in my heart as I end the call.
Talking to Sandy has brought no comfort. It has just reinforced
my sense of having been cast adrift. I sit on one of the metal
garden chairs and, to take my mind away from the nothingness
of my marriage, I think about all the things I have to do.
My mother told me during her final days in the hospital that
she was leaving everything to me, everything being the small
house she moved into after Dermot died and whatever money
she had in the bank. I’ll have to go through her things and decide
whether or not to sell the house. But these are tasks I can put off
for a while. I can go back to London in the next few days and,
after a month or two, return to Ireland to sort everything out.
I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting there when Ursula
‘Oh, Lou, what are you doing out here? You’ll freeze to death
without a coat.’
‘I called Sandy.’
‘Nothing, really. He says to call him when I’m back in London.’
‘Good. Now, let’s get you inside and warmed up.’
My mother’s brother, Richard, comes over to talk to me with
his son, Peter, who has driven him down from Dublin. I have
no recollection of ever having met either of them, but Richard
tells me he remembers me as a very small child.
I’m not surprised when he tells me that he found out about
my mother’s death when he read the notice Angela placed in the
paper; people of a certain age in Ireland tend to go straight to
the death notices before they read the news. But I am surprised
when he tells me they had been in occasional contact over the
years. She had never mentioned it. His name rarely came up.
‘The last time we talked was during the summer. I had no
idea she was so ill,’ he says.
‘None of us did. She probably didn’t, either, until it was too
‘Still, I wish I had known. I might have been able to help.’
Richard speaks in the light, refined tones of Dublin’s more
affluent southern suburbs, as my mother did. I see the physical
resemblance between them, too. Like my mother, he’s tall and,
despite his age, moves lightly, fluidly. He’s a handsome man.
‘I’m very sorry you had to deal with Marjorie’s death by
yourself,’ he says.
‘I had Angela. Dermot’s daughter. She was very good to my
mother,’ I say, making the point that the person I have leaned
on most is not a blood relative.
He looks slightly uncomfortable, but I may be reading into
his expression what I want to see. A quick calculation tells me
that he must be close to eighty, but he wears his age well. Peter
is a different type, shorter than his father and stockier. Probably
a rugby player at whichever top boarding school he will have
attended. His slightly florid complexion, bordered by dark hair
that is flecked with grey, hints at future health issues. He won’t
age as gracefully as his father. I almost feel sorry for him; clearly,
neither of us has inherited the Redmond genes.
As Richard and I talk, Peter smiles occasionally, his small
and silent contribution to the short and difficult conversation.
Perhaps he senses some hostility from me, or maybe he feels
he has given enough of his time to the funeral of an aunt he
didn’t know, because before very long he looks at his watch and
apologises, saying they have to leave.
Richard, looking somewhat relieved, says goodbye to me. But
just as he starts to walk towards the door, he turns around and
takes my hand.
‘Will you come and see me in Dalkey, Louise?’ he says. ‘I have
some photographs you might like to see.’
I make a vague promise to visit him, but I have no intention
of keeping it. He has never been part of my life. Why should I
invite him into it now?