Peter was tired after the long delay to his flight but pleased that he was now seated and ready for take-off. He fiddled constantly with his book, picking it up, reading a few pages, putting it aside and then opening it again. His thoughts, although tinged with brief moments of excitement, were overshadowed by sorrow. He was returning to a place that had ceased to exist as he had known it. From the letters Josephine had written to him over the past twenty years, he imagined it to be like a face that had been replaced with a mask. Change after change, death after death, had resulted in the demise of the village he loved and cherished. And then there was Emily. He had wondered so many times what had gone through this young girl’s mind in the moments before she died. He was left haunted by the terror and hysteria she must have felt as she entered the cold and icy river.
Nothing was ever the same after Emily’s death. At first people believed it was an accident but village gossip prevailed. Miss Driscoll was the ringleader – although there were traces of tears when she spoke. But mostly she just shook her head when she met with a neighbour or friend. People wondered how a young girl could have drowned so easily in the river at the back of their neighbour’s house.
‘I don’t think we’ll ever know the real truth of what happened,’ Miss Driscoll said, after hearing that Josephine – Emily’s eldest sister – had been taken away to a special hospital.
Peter suspected the truth because he was Josephine’s friend. They held few secrets from each other. And although he never got the opportunity to say goodbye before he left for America, they had maintained letter contact over the years; twice monthly in unbroken precision.
After dinner, Peter closed his eyes and pictured the boreen as he had last seen it.
He could see himself walking down its slope as he drifted off to sleep. He saw a multitude of different species, varied according to the season. Early spring brought clumps of gorse bushes with their distinctive yellow colour and coconut scent. The paler primroses, which complemented them, grew in profusion everywhere. The ever-visible thistles, dandelions, buttercups, and daisies were growing wild at the foot of hedgerows and ditches, and amongst all of these were white berries. A myth surrounded these berries. Some people believed that cows wouldn’t eat them because they were poisonous. Josephine picked a handful of berries and gave one to Emily first. She was smiling as she did so. Nothing seemed to happen for a while. Then she turned to Peter and motioned for him to open his mouth as she placed one on his tongue. He could see the frown on his face as the foul smelling berry entered the sanctuary of his mouth. He tried to remain still, afraid to swallow, just like he used to when his mother placed a spoonful of cod liver oil in his mouth and uttered the expected words, ‘Open wide’.
Peter roused from his sleep with a jerk, as if he had slept through the alarm and would now be late for work. He suddenly remembered the berry and reached for a handkerchief to place over his mouth. He immersed his tongue into the handkerchief, pulled it away and was relieved there was no berry in it. He rested his head back onto his seat and closed his eyes.
As the cabin lights came on, Peter woke fully, and the immaculately coiffured air hostesses bustled around him with the breakfast service. After the few hours sleep, he felt wide awake and no longer fidgeted with his book – only another hour to go before touch down. The fresh morning light shone through the little window behind him, blinding his vision as he tried to look down on the clouds. It reminded him of his first time in a Boston nightclub – how fascinated he had become with the beaming lights and how his confidence had grown. It was so different to the awkwardness of his first teenage village barn dance, where the ladies stood on one side waiting for a streaming flow of men to pass by and invite them to dance. The atmosphere consisted mainly of dread and fear, but occasionally a little romance emerged for the brave-hearted.
A strong wind greeted Peter as he left the airport terminal to collect the keys to his rented car. It was only the beginning of October, which made this onslaught of high winds early and unexpected. Moreover, hailstones picked at his face, whilst dust from the pavement blew unmercifully in his eyes. In the midst of this gale he pondered on how he would be able to pick up the pieces of his life. But, as he drove the thirty miles to Josephine’s house, he gradually blanked out these thoughts by recalling scenes from his childhood. As Peter drew nearer to his destination he passed the boarded-up house that once belonged to Mrs Jarvis. The garden now played host to nettles and thistles which replaced the masses of yellow and red roses that were once her pride and joy; her children almost, by the amount of time and care she bestowed on them. He fondly remembered Mrs Jarvis from his altar boy days. He could still see himself listening to the sermon, too scared to look at the congregation as he waited for the priest to finish so he could take centre stage. A young actor ready to perform in front of his audience, but his eyes were always lowered onto well-polished shoes. He was about twelve then and had no doubts that his life would be the best ever. He thought that serving Mass was comparable to a president serving in office, although placing the silver platter under chins during communion was a downside to his imagined presidency. All those unappetising mouths of bad breath open wide. Mrs Jarvis would eagerly make her way to the altar rails long before it was time and would also be the last to leave. Once the priest had served her communion she would just stand there with her eyes closed whilst people made their way either side of her. Over time, they just accepted it as part of the Mass, as if the Pope had given explicit permission for this to happen every week.
Peter knocked gently on the door, then quickly dried the perspiration from his hands and replaced the hankie in his pocket before the door opened.
‘Are you the Peter O’Connor that used to be?’ Josephine asked.
‘Still am, I hope,’ replied Peter.
They hugged and Peter kissed Josephine’s forehead.
‘Come in, I have prepared something to eat,’ Josephine said.
The smell of fresh baking oozed from the kitchen. The conversation flowed over homemade vegetable soup and white soda bread with caraway seeds. Smiles and laughter were exchanged as they talked about school days, rural endeavours and other childhood memories. There was no mention of Emily though. After lunch Josephine invited Peter to retreat to a seat near the glowing turf fire and poured them both a whiskey.
‘Welcome home, Peter,’ Josephine toasted.
They raised and clinked their glasses.
In the ensuing conversation, Josephine mentioned that there was going to be a fundraising dance in the local parish hall the following week, for the starving children of Africa.
Would you like to go?’ asked Peter.
‘Oh Peter, I haven’t been to a dance since I was at school,’ Josephine replied.
After another couple of hours had passed, Peter decided the time had come to lay another ghost to rest. He walked over the road to his parents’ house and pushed open the door. The last time he closed that door was a couple of days after his mother’s funeral. The smell of damp greeted him instantly. The interior looked liked an updated version of Miss Haversham’s living room from Great Expectations with its dusty decaying furniture. His mother’s rocking chair was still there. He pictured her sitting on it with a heavy woollen rug draped over her shoulders, as she sang:
‘Come over the hills my bonny Irish lad
Come over the hills to your darling.’
She had sung the same song everyday without fail. In fact she seldom uttered anything else after Peter’s father died. She would just sit on the rocking chair and gaze straight ahead as if she was seeing and hearing a world around her that was invisible to everyone else. He felt peace after she died. He reassured himself that she would no longer be confused, and that she would be having long conversations with his father again. They might even discuss Emily. After all, there are no secrets in heaven where everything is known and understood.
The house had once been a fine two-storey building, crafted in stone with a large white front door and ivy that crept over its well-whitewashed exterior. His mother, in her more lucid moments, always claimed that it had been the finest house in the area and the envy of many. Its roof was still intact. He was taken aback by how calm it was inside the house, despite the gale outside. It felt surreal to be back in his old homestead. Its serenity coaxed him into thinking if the place were repaired and rejuvenated, could new life, new happiness, grow inside the interior again. Could that be its destiny, he pondered?
Peter looked up and saw Josephine standing at the front door. Without hesitation she walked past him, made her way to the back door and quietly began walking down towards the field. Peter followed silently. It suddenly occurred to him that the wind had lessened and that the sky was clearer and more settled. They remained silent as they walked though the field of brown rushes, and land that had been long neglected. Suddenly, a large red and brown pheasant flew with an almighty roar from an underground just ahead of them, and flapped its wings with force as it soared into the sky. Josephine must have sensed his alarm because she looked around and said,
‘Don’t worry we’re almost there.’
They sat quietly by a tree and watched the swift flow of the river for several minutes.
‘Mother never forgave me, you know,’ Josephine said before adding, ‘and she constantly reminded me that I was the least pretty. I was only twelve, and for years afterwards I blamed myself, thought myself to be evil almost.’
‘You were nothing of the kind. It was an accident. She slipped. You know how silly and clumsy Emily was,’ Peter replied.
‘And that’s what I’d like to believe too,’ said Josephine.
Peter clasped Josephine’s hand in his. The sense of touch is remarkable. Words are secondary to its power. It can heal, it can cure and it can bring peace. Its tenderness can awaken feelings that are dead and buried. It can revitalize and breathe new life into veins.
After the storm, the evening air started to turn cold and eventually they recognised that the moment was right to get up and leave.
‘I will need a new dress for the dance,’ Josephine announced.
‘We can go shopping tomorrow, if you like,’ replied Peter.
After the excitement of the previous day, Peter slept until late morning and didn’t leave the hotel to collect Josephine until after midday. After a lunch of fish and salad, they began the task of finding Josephine a new dress. Rails and rails of different colours and designs awaited them in Nancy’s drapery shop. Josephine was in and out of the changing booth like a restless bee, trying on different dresses but being completely indecisive about her selection. Then she picked a pin-striped one from the rail.
‘Red really suits you,’ Peter said.
‘Oh, I feel like Little Red Riding Hood,’ Josephine replied before bursting into laughter.
Later that afternoon, Peter busied himself whilst Josephine was making tea in the kitchen. The earthy smell of the peat was like a drug that made him light-headed as he laid the turf in the fireplace. He remained on his knees on the rug by the fireplace and became mesmerised by the quickness and the crackles of the new flames as they gathered speed.
Josephine came in and left the tea tray, containing fruitcake, on the hearth before saying, ‘I must go and try on my new dress.’
She returned and gave a little twirl before kneeling down beside Peter to pour the tea.
The quickness of a moment can never be underestimated. Peter placed his hand on Josephine’s cheek and then let his other hand move slowly down the middle of her back before he leaned forward and kissed her on the lips. Josephine’s body froze as if a catapult had struck it unexpectedly. Her pupils enlarged like she had seen an apparition. She’d never been kissed by a man before, but the tenderness of the occasion relaxed her and brought tears of joy to her eyes. Her embarrassment, though, resembled that of a sinner in a confessional box, fearful that people in the queue might be listening.
The fire had now kindled and gave out heat that was comforting and pleasant. Peter and Josephine lay on the rug in front of the fire, completely at ease with each other. The silence between them was so comfortable, it was almost as if they had been married for a long time. They say an artist is prompted to paint by the beauty he sees, but once he has painted the goddess; her beauty is transferred onto the canvas. Peter felt renewed in his thoughts. They became fresher as vivid images of his future lay before him, like a banquet of exquisite food presented on silver platters. He allowed himself to wander to a distant place he had never before visited. It was like flying, unaided by wings. He could see tall mountains. The mountains grew higher over the cliff tops, looking down on a clear blue ocean. Emily stood at the top of the peak with outstretched arms and a facial expression which showed she was alive, happy and free. A mild breeze covered the mountain range. He knew at that point that Josephine had told him the truth about Emily. He felt soothed by this reassuring thought and placed his arm around her shoulder before giving it a gentle squeeze.