Sneaky peek* at the first chapter.
*unedited and subject to change, but you knew that, right?
The engine is making a weird noise as my foot weighs heavily on the accelerator. My rusty, old car isn’t used to travelling this fast. The doors rattle and the steering wheel vibrates between my hands reasoning with me to slow down. But, I weave in and out of the motorway traffic, all the while cursing any slow drivers in front of me under my breath.
I’d been expecting the call. I’d known for quite some time that it could be any day now, but my breath still caught in the back of my throat when I answered my mobile and my brother’s voice whispered softly, ‘it’s time’.
I literally ran out of work, stopping only to scribble a brief explanation on a yellow Post It that I stuck to Nate’s laptop screen for him to see when he finished in meetings. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, and I don’t want to know. I didn’t even stop by my apartment to grab an overnight bag. Anything I need I can pick up in the local shop once I get there. I just need to get there before it’s too late.
The familiar two and a half hour drive from Dublin to Galway maps out like infinity in my mind. Every minute I’m not yet with my family is tearing little pieces off my heart. An amber light flickers on the dashboard behind the steering wheel, and I roll my eyes knowing that my little car is well overdue a service but I just can’t afford it at the moment. Nate said he’d bring it to the garage for me last month, but that’s before our world fell apart. Suddenly a stupid car service was the least of my worries. My fingers curl tighter around the steering wheel and I plead with my car to hold out until I make it to Galway. Wait for me, Nana. Please wait for me.
Traffic is forgiving and in just under two hours the familiar crunch of pebble stones under the tyres of my car sends a shiver down my spine. I used to love this noise as a child. This noise meant we had reached the long, winding driveway leading to my grandmother’s farmhouse in Athenry, Country Galway. The journey from our family home just outside Dublin was always trying. Ben and I would spend most of the time fighting in the back seat and my mother’s patients would wear thin. She’d warn us that if we didn’t behave she’d turn the car around and there would be no weekend with Nana. We always knew she was bluffing but we’d stop our arguing nonetheless and allow excitement to take over instead.
My Grandmother’s house was a place of stories, homemade apple tart and hard boiled sweets. It was my favourite place in the whole world when I was a little girl. It’s a very different place now. The years have passed. Ben turned thirty last month and I’m almost twenty-nine. Life is busy and we don’t visit as often as we should. I try to squeeze in an overnight visit every couple of months, but it’s becoming steadily more difficult and Ben gets pissed off if I nag him to visit when I can’t. It’s almost hard to believe we were every the pair of goofy kids who loved the old house almost as much as we loved the old lady. Time has changed us all. Just as my grandmother always warned me that it would.
‘You can’t save time, Holly. So spend it wisely,’ she always said pointing her finger towards the sky and I often wondered if there was someone up there that she was talking to.
‘One day you’ll be all grown up,’ she used to warn. ‘You’ll be too big to sit on my knee and too old to listen to my stories.’
‘I can’t wait to grow up,’ I’ always replied excitedly.
When I was seven years old I meant it. I thought being a grown up would be amazing. And, sometimes it is. Just not lately.
Nearing the front of the house I seek out the familiar, overgrown apple tree on the front lawn and decide to park next to it. It’s the same tree I fell out of and broke my left arm when I was nine. The same tree my father wanted to take a chainsaw to because the roots were growing too big and edging too close to the house, and, the same tree my grandmother warned him that if he so much as broke a branch she’d kick him so hard up the arse he wouldn’t be able to sit down for a month. My grandmother never swears. Ever. Sometimes I wonder if she even knows any curse words, but she loves that tree. If anyone ever touched it I’m almost certain she’d string off a list of profanities like a sailor.
But, I barley recognise Nana’s big, country house anymore. Or myself, recently – if I’m honest. Everything is changing and it scares me. The smell of home baking in my grandmother’s large farmhouse has been replaced by antiseptic cleaner and the only stories we hear now are from Nana’s Doctors.
Ben opens the front door as I tip the brakes and tuck my car under the drooping braches of the apple tree. I swallow a little acid that’s been lodged in the back of my throat for the entire journey. I snatch my handbag off the passenger’s seat and I’m out of the car almost before it comes to a complete stop. I race towards the house struggling on the lose pebbles in my killer heals. I can’t move fast enough towards all the memories I cherish and towards a future that scares me.
‘Did I make it?’ I shout.
My voice echoes around the huge, open garden and carries back to hit me like a slap across the face. And then silence. The wind doesn’t rustle the leaves on the trees. The birds don’t chirp as they perch in their nest. It’s as if nature waits with baited breath for my brother’s answer. Ben doesn’t shout back. Oh Christ.
‘Did I make it?’ I call again; louder this time as I edge closer to the front door, searching for clues in my brother’s face.
Ben nods, and it’s only then I realise I’ve been holding my breath.
I stop running as I reach the rickety door step. I remember how it wobbles every time you step on it, so I’ve spent years stepping over instead because I don’t want to be the one to break it. But today I step right in the centre and as if the old, concrete slab sympathises – it doesn’t move under my weight.
Ben’s eyes are red, puffy and bloodshot. It’s obvious he’s been crying. I want to hug him but I’m afraid that if I touch him I’ll fall to pieces. My chest tightens and I’m suddenly aware of my heart beating against my ribs.
‘You made it,’ Ben says, his stiff upper body softening and the corners of his lips twist to form a half smile. ‘You made it.’
My hand smacks against my chest and I cough. ‘Thank, God.’
‘C’mon. Nana is in her bedroom.’ Ben tilts his head towards the prominent, sweeping stairs behind him. ‘The nurse is with her, and Mom is there too.’
Ben steps to one side and makes room for me to pass by, but I don’t move. The fine hairs on the back of my neck stand ridged, and my back curves like a startled cat. I think I’m actually afraid to go inside. I feel like a small child again. I need someone to pick me up, cuddle me and tell me it will all be okay. But I know how this story ends. The grown up in me knows this one doesn’t have a happy ever after. Maybe if I never go inside it’ll never happen. I can stay out here in the porch and Nana will be fine. She will be fine.
‘Holly just come in. It’s freezing,’ Ben says, his hand cups my elbow, ushering me inside before he closes the heavy, old front door behind us.
I drop my handbag onto the tired wicker chair that sits just inside the door. My father is sitting on the bottom step of the stairs staring into a cup of coffee. I place my hand on his shoulder and squeeze gently. He looks up and smiles, but he doesn’t talk or get up. I understand. I exhale slowly, nod and brush past.
‘Are you coming, Ben?’ I say softly, stopping and turning around halfway up the stairs.
Ben shakes his head. ‘You go. Take some time on your own with her. She’s been asking for you. I’ll come up soon.’
She’s been asking for me? Guilt swirls in the pit of my stomach. I should have come sooner. Work is crazy busy recently, since my ex-boyfriend became my new boss, but that’s no excuse. I should have made time to visit my dying grandmother. My legs take the next steps two at a time. I need to see her.
Nana’s bedroom door is slightly ajar and music is playing. It’s subtle and little more than a hum in the background but everything is so still I can hear it from the landing. It’s Nana’s favourite. The operatic stuff that Ben and I used to hate as kids. It’s Carmen, I think. All violins and cellos. It’s beautiful.
My hand shakes as I reach for the door knob and push the door back just enough to allow me to fit through the gap. The curtains are drawn and block the dull light of dusk from entering the room. Instead, the only light comes from four or five small candles resting haphazardly on my Grandmother’s dressing table, under the window. I squint and it only takes seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. Ruby red roses sit in a large vase on the bedside table and I stare at them, almost without blinking. I know if I move my gaze just a fraction more I’ll see my grandmother lying in bed. Instead my eyes try to focus on my mother’s back as she sits hunched forward on the edge of the bed. My mother is holding my grandmother’s hand but she lets go and stands up as soon as she notices me, she lunges forwards and wraps her arms so tightly around my neck it pinches.
‘She’s not in any pain, love,’ my mother says as if she can read my mind and knows exactly what I would ask when I catch my breath.
I nod. I want to say that I’m glad she doesn’t have pain, but no words will come out. My mother untangles her arms from around me and gestures for me to sit. I’m not sure what to do. There’s only one bedside chair and my mother deserves that seat.
I take a step back, and my shoulders collide with the wall behind me. The coolness of the wallpaper seems to sooth my shaking body and I take some deep breaths as I stand with my back stiff and awkward.
‘Don’t be afraid, Holly,’ my mother whispers. ‘She’s wouldn’t want that.’
I frown. ‘I’m not scared, Mom.’
I’m lying and my mother knows it. I’m petrified, and I can see the same fear weighing every inch of my mother’s body down.
The noise of the toilet flushing in the next door bathroom startles me and I actually jump.
‘It’s the nurse,’ My mother explains. ‘She’s lovely. She’s been here with Nana since early morning.’
I smile, but I don’t show teeth.
‘You look tired. Have you eaten?’ My mother asks.
I nod. It’s my second lie in less than a minute.
My mother swallows hard and I can actually see the lump of air physically work its way down her throat. How long has she sat here, I wonder. Hours? Days, I guess. She must be exhausted. She looks older. Almost as old as Nana.
‘You know what, Mom?’ I say, trying to keep my voice level. ‘I am actually pretty hungry…’
My mother pulls herself upright and rubs her hands together. ‘Of course you are,’ she says, ‘I’ll go down stairs and fix you something straight away. I think there’s some left overs in the fridge. If not, I’ll pop out to the shop. I won’t be long.’
‘Sounds great. Thanks.’
I’m not hungry. Despite only having two cups of coffee and half an apple all day the last thing on my mind is food. The thoughts of eating anything right now makes me want to throw up. But my mother is weary, and needs a break from keeping vigil at my grandmother’s bedside. The least I can do is choke down a sandwich if it helps to distract her.
‘You’ll stay with her, won’t you?’ My mother asks, turning back as she reaches the bedroom door.
‘Of course I will. I’m not going anywhere.’