Extracts from my novel, Beneath an Irish Sky. Well, not just mine - co-authored with my friend Val O from across the pond, in Vancouver. Writing with someone in a different timezone hasn't been easy, but I'd not have done it without her. Hope she feels the same about me!
The novel is being published by Choc Lit, in August, 2013. (Happy dance....)
* * *
* * *
“Jack Stewart?” A policeman scanned the waiting area.
“I’m Garda Michael Flynn.” A handshake, as if Jack mattered. Christ, when did he become so cynical? But he knew the answer to that one. It was when she left him.
“Sorry for your loss.”
That platitude again. As if these people had any idea what he and Annie had shared. Had lost. Of what he’d suffered because of her.
“If you’ll come this way. We’ll try to make it as quick as possible.”
Quick. Like her death. Alive one minute, driving her car, thinking of work or shopping or whatever she did these days, and then...gone. Wiped from the roll of the living. It was as much as he knew. As much as the police in Manchester knew. When they’d shown up in his office yesterday and told him there’d been an accident, he'd panicked and thought of his son, Matt, in Amsterdam on a stag night. That policewoman, oozing compassion, hadn't realized Jack had dropped down in his chair with relief, not grief. He'd refused to go to Dublin at first, until he realized it was an opportunity to finally learn the truth. It wasn't until later the shock of having Annie reintroduced into his life hit him.
They stopped outside a steel door where a sign announced ‘Mortuary’ in stark black letters. Flynn turned to him. “The sergeant told me you and Mrs Stewart were separated. When did you last see her?”
Sod this. Weren’t things bad enough without Jack having to announce his failure as a husband to everyone he met? “I last saw her over twenty years ago,” he said, quietly enough, yet the words seemed to echo down the long empty corridor.
Flynn raised an eyebrow. “So there's a chance you might not recognize her?”
Jack thought about that. Annie would have changed. No longer the young girl he’d married. Forty now. Maybe a few wrinkles, some grey hair. That could be a blessing. Like looking at a stranger. “I’ll know her,” he said, with more certainty than he felt. “Let’s get it over with.”
The fluorescent strip lighting in the viewing room was harsh, its relentless blue-white glare attacking every corner. A clock registered almost mid-day. The body lay in the centre of the room, covered with a sheet. The hairs on the back of Jack’s neck prickled, although he'd seen a dead body before. Just once. An asthma attack had taken his first wife when she was only twenty-five. Jack had cradled Caroline in his arms as if he could will some of his own warmth back into her. Weeping openly, his tears had soaked her face and hair, the grief like a knife in his gut. And now his second wife had left him behind, although she’d actually discarded him years before.
“Ready?” asked Flynn.
Jack nodded. Ready as he'd ever be. The sheet was folded back, and he was looking at a heart-shaped face, wounds prominent on skin the colour of chalk. Dark silky hair, maybe the only part of her alive now. He'd read once about people opening a coffin and finding the corpse’s hair still growing. She’d be in a coffin soon. In the dark earth. He wanted to throw up. God, please – not here.
Flynn was at his elbow. “Is it…?”
Jack swallowed hard, attempted to make his voice normal. “It’s her.”
“I'll give you a moment.”
The door closed, and Jack was alone with Annie. At least, Annie's shell. He didn’t touch her. She’d feel like ice, not warm the way he remembered her. Was she watching him? Her spirit floating around, looking down, wondering why he was there. No chance now to find out why she’d left him. The dead don’t talk.
“Why?” His voice surprised him. Thinking out loud. “Why, Annie?”
The lights hummed, the second-hand on the clock moved. Nothing else. No revelation, no gift of closure. Nothing for him here. Jack pulled the sheet back over the face still as familiar to him as his own, and walked away.
* * *
In the next room, Flynn had prepared tea. Jack gulped it down, feeling the hot, sweet liquid revive him a bit. Almost done now, then back to Baronsmere and normality.
“Just sign here. It says you’ve formally identified the body.”
Jack scribbled his name, not even bothering to read the form.
“Do you need the name of an undertaker?” Flynn asked.
“We have a list of local undertakers.”
“Why would I need that?”
“Well…for the funeral. We’re releasing the body to you.”
“I can’t take care of that! I only came here to identify her. I’ve got to get back to Manchester.”
“The body can’t stay here, Mr Stewart.” Flynn spoke slowly, as if explaining something to a child.
“But what am I supposed to do with it?”
“Well, the undertakers can move it to a funeral home. There's one near the hospital – McBride's – which would be practical. They'll help you arrange the burial.”
Arrangements. Paperwork. Phone calls. Red tape. This was ridiculous. And why was a location near the hospital 'practical'?
“She has other family,” Jack protested. “What about them?”
Flynn consulted his paperwork but shook his head. “The car was registered to Joseph Kiernan, but no-one seems to know where he is. He and his brother work away a lot apparently.”
Useless bastards they were, anyway. Vicious no-hopers, who never forgave Annie for marrying an outsider. “And there's no-one else?” Jack asked, not really wanting the answer.
“Her father died some months ago, according to neighbours. Your son might be able to tell you where other relatives are.”
How the hell would Matt know that? Just how incompetent were these Gardai goons? “What are you talking about? My son hasn’t seen Annie since he was four.”
Flynn flicked back through his paperwork. “Your son, Luke, was in the car with your wife when the accident happened. He’s in St Aidan’s hospital.”
Jack shouldn't have been surprised, but it still rankled that Annie had found happiness with someone else – started a family, even used the name they’d planned for their own son. His hand curled into a fist in his lap. “No-one told me she had a son,” he said, his voice hard. “So why haven’t you contacted the father, her...partner? He should be taking care of all this.” The Traveller. The one she'd shacked up with after leaving him and returning to her own people.
“There is no partner, as far as we're aware,” Flynn told him. “The birth certificate identifies him as Luke Stewart, although he appears to be using the name Kiernan now, and you're named as his father. I’m sorry, I thought the Manchester police explained this to you.”
“How old is he?” Jack asked.
The walls of the room seemed to close in. Not enough air. Jack closed his eyes. Shit, a son he never knew about! Not possible. Why would Annie do that? It was monstrous. Cruel. If she weren't already dead, he'd probably have killed her.
Thankfully, Luke was in a single room. No nosy fellow patients or visitors to worry about. Jack watched from the doorway as the nurse checked the IV.
“Why don’t you sit with him for a while?” she suggested. “I’ll fix you a cup of tea.”
“Thanks.” Jack dropped the smile the minute the nurse left.
The figure in the bed was still. Please God, don’t let him wake up just yet. The face came into focus. Some cuts, and greenish yellow bruising. Long dark eyelashes, and black hair framing a face so like Annie’s it hurt. His mother's son, for sure. Jack could see no resemblance to the Stewarts. The hospital bed made him look small and young, about sixteen, maybe seventeen. Unfortunately, the birth certificate said otherwise.
Jack sat down heavily on the chair. What exactly had Annie told her son? Luke had never tried to make contact, which seemed strange, especially given the Stewart's wealth. And if Annie wanted nothing more to do with them, why did she put Jack on the birth certificate at all? Why did she never ask for child support? It didn't make sense.
A monitor beeped, and he flicked his attention back to Luke. Shit! He was awake but looked confused. Jack wished he'd just gone to a hotel for the rest of the day. Now he’d have to say something reassuring, and probably identify himself. He stood up and moved towards the bed. “Luke? You’re in hospital, but don’t worry, you’re going to be okay.” He sounded and felt awkward. “You don’t know me, but…”
“I know who you are. I've seen your picture. You’re my bastard father…”
Jack froze, his mind replaying the words.
“You threw my mother out because – what was it – you didn’t want a gypo kid!”
Luke was staring daggers at him. Annie must have said Jack had rejected her, instead of the other way round.
“What the hell are you talking about? I never even knew you existed before today.”
“Liar!” Luke’s voice was raised and cracking with the strain. He struggled to sit up, winced, and sank back against the pillows. He looked exhausted but somehow found the strength to sweep the jug of water from the table beside him towards Jack. It missed by inches, clattering against the wall, its contents flooding the floor.
A nurse hurried into the room. She spoke gently to Luke, but to no effect. He was obviously distressed and in pain. A male nurse appeared and frowned at Jack. “If you don't mind, sir. We need to settle the patient."
A firm hand on his shoulder steered Jack towards the door. As if it was his fault. He flushed at the injustice. That was it. He was out of here, back on a flight to Manchester that afternoon.
“Where’s my mother? I want to see my mother!”
Glancing back, the despair on Luke's face told Jack he already suspected the truth. Part of him was thankful he wouldn’t have to be the one to tell the kid his mother was dead. The other part of him felt like a total shit.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
And Sir Nicholas Stewart had entered the building. Matt’s grandfather had a voice that could be heard two fields away. He’d spent his early years booming out commands across noisy construction sites, and he’d never really toned it down. Matt watched from the drawing room as Nicholas compared his watch with the grandfather clock in the hallway, as if worried that minutes might be trying to escape. Time is money, was his philosophy.
"He has a few phone calls to make, Sir Nicholas,” said Maggie. "He'll join you shortly. He asked for you to wait in the drawing-room."
Grace swept into view, holding out her coat without so much as a glance at the servant she considered bold and disrespectful. "Tell my son we're here."
Matt grinned as Maggie dropped an exaggerated curtsey behind his grandparents' backs. Some things never changed, which right now was reassuring. Grace and Maggie would always find something to disagree about, even if the world was ending.
"Matt, darling!" He was enveloped in a cloud of overpowering floral scent as Grace kissed his cheek and rearranged his collar. Best return the kiss and keep her sweet, considering the shock in store. "We were talking about you today, Victoria McLean and I. Her niece, The Honourable Rosalind Delaney, finishes at Marlborough this summer.”
She was never going to be happy till she'd married him off. As long as it was to someone of her choosing. Someone who knew which sauce to serve with duck, but probably not much else.
“She has plans to study at the Courtauld,” his grandmother persevered, draping herself elegantly on the Louis Quinze sofa. “Very bright girl. Rides extremely well, too.”
That was just begging for a comment, but Matt resisted. “Good for her,” he said instead. “I’m sure she’ll make someone else a lovely wife. Now – how about an aperitif while we wait. Dry sherry as usual, Gran? What about you, Grand-dad – whisky?”
The serving of the drinks bought some time, but Nicholas’s craggy face soon developed a frown. “Where is Jack?” he asked. “What was this secret mission all about?"
Matt sighed. Now he had to evade the questions. “Well, he wants to tell you about it himself, Grand-dad.” And he’d better get a move on.
* * *
How was Jack going to tell his parents about Luke? Should he come right out with it or lead up to it gradually? It would be so much easier if he was enthusiastic himself, but he was far from sure he'd done the right thing. His decision to bring Luke back had pleased Matt and Maggie, but Nicholas and Grace were going to react very differently.
He couldn't put it off any longer. Matt would be getting pissed off. Jack left the study, trying to ignore the headache that had started earlier. Luke had been here less than twenty-four hours, and Jack was already at odds with his family. This arrangement was never going to work out. Still, only a few weeks and then things could get back to normal.
He paused outside the room where Luke was hopefully sleeping. He was tempted to look in to make sure, because what was going to be said should be out of the kid’s hearing, but those antique oak doors were guaranteed to creak. No point risking it. Jack entered the drawing room just in time to hear his father speculating about his absence. "Lots of links golf courses in Ireland. Or some hotel development, perhaps? It’s not like Jack to keep so quiet about a business deal…”
Jack hadn’t phoned his father once from Ireland, although Nicholas had left several messages demanding an update. Luke's arrival was news that should be broken face to face. Right now, though, Jack wished he could postpone it indefinitely. “Hello, Dad. Matt’s set you up with a drink, I see. Hello, Mother.”
“Jack, darling,” purred Grace, as he dropped a kiss onto her cheek.
Matt handed him a glass of Scotch. He looked tense. Jack sat down near the door on an uncomfortable gilt salon chair usually reserved for unwelcome guests. Grace, immaculate as ever, was twisting her pearl necklace. She looked bored. Business held no interest for her, only the wealth and status that came with it. He glanced at Nicholas, who seemed to fill the room with his confident presence, and was no doubt waiting for Jack to make him proud with news of some lucrative business deal. He downed his whisky in one gulp, hoping it would steady him for what was to come. As he lowered the glass, he saw them all watching him. He felt acutely self-conscious and wished they would all vanish and leave him in peace. Including Luke. Especially Luke.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I could do without all this tonight.”
Grace’s expression was disapproving. “Well, in that case, darling, we won’t stay long.”
Polite words, but the word ‘darling’ could drip from her mouth as easy as water from a tap, and just as transparent.
“So, tell us about Ireland,” said Nicholas. “I’m rather hoping it’s connected to the Macallan Consortium.”
Jack took a deep breath. “I wasn’t in Ireland on business”
For once, Nicholas seemed confused. “Well, why didn’t you tell me you’d scheduled a holiday? The deal with Canalside Leisure is at a fairly critical stage. Not good to keep them waiting…”
Jack held up his hand to stop the flow of criticism. He focused on the ormolu and marble French Empire clock on the mantelpiece, its loud and irritating tick the only sound in the room for several seconds. Best get it over with. "I've just discovered I have a son. I brought him back with me."
He watched his parents as the shock registered. He sympathized. His world had tilted too. Grace placed her sherry glass carefully on the occasional table beside her. “What are you saying? That you’ve been having an affair which has resulted in a child?”
“No, no, he’s…”
“For heaven’s sake, Jack!” interrupted Nicholas. “What kind of fool are you? A man in your position has to ensure precautions are taken, or you could be a prime target for some gold-digger looking for a very nice little income – not to mention landing you with a millstone around your neck for eighteen years!”
They’d got it all wrong. Assumed he was talking about a baby, a new child. Instead, they'd have to meet a belligerent and resentful young man who was the image of the woman they'd rejected.
“So who is this woman?” asked Grace. “Not another – diddakoi – I trust?”
“No, the same one,” came a quiet voice behind them.
Shit! Luke was in the doorway, balanced uncomfortably on his crutches. Jack could have kicked himself – he’d been so distracted, he hadn’t closed the door completely.
It was Matt who finally broke the awkward silence. “Hi, Luke. I’m Matt. It's good to meet you.” His words of welcome got no response from Luke who was staring – no, glaring – at Grace.
Jack was acutely aware how out of place Luke was in these formal surroundings – casually dressed, hair tangled from sleep, cuts and bruising prominent on his pale face. Are you ashamed of him? Emer’s words echoed uncomfortably.