Thoughts of Tilly filled my head. I’d met her, got her number, lost her number, and I hadn’t even realised it was her. But surely it explained the connection between us that day in the bar.
She’d looked so different, nothing like my nine-year-old best friend. She’d grown up. Her hair was long and shiny. She must have worn braces at some point. And judging by her figure, had ditched the doughnuts we used to eat by the bag full as kids. She was gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.
‘It’s fair to warn you, Isaac,’ said Cillian, cutting into my thoughts as we headed down the aisle of the plane towards our seats, pushing past people squeezing their luggage into the overheard compartments. ‘I may cry on take-off.’
‘Cry?’ Several people glanced our way. I avoided their stares.
‘Ah, this is us,’ he said. And looking at his boarding pass, he shuffled across a row of three seats and sat next to the window.
‘Cry?’ I repeated, sitting next to him, narrowing my body to avoid bumping his knees and elbows.
‘Yep.’ He nodded. ‘Planes make me cry. In a good way.’
‘In a good way?’ I said, fumbling with my seatbelt, and buckling it across my lap. ‘How can planes make you cry in a good way?’
‘It’s only the take-off, mate. What can I say? It overwhelms me.’ He rubbed his hands together. ‘Have we ordered food?’
‘So do you cry loudly?’ I couldn’t hide the concern in my voice.
‘It depends on how emotional I get. I’m starving, are you?’ He hoisted himself up to peer over the seats. ‘Those sandwiches at the airport were like cardboard.’
‘You’re winding me up.’
‘No, they really were like cardboard.’ He laughed. ‘Did you see what I did there?’
‘So, about the crying,’ I whispered, as a teenage girl with headphones on dropped heavily into the seat next to me.
‘No, Isaac, I’m not winding you up. Taking off in an aeroplane is an incredible experience. Imagine living two hundred years ago. You wouldn’t have thought twice about getting emotional if you’d had the chance to travel in one of these beasties back then.’ He gripped the armrests as though the plane was his. ‘You’d have thought you’d died and gone to heaven, or landed on another planet. This would have been considered a miracle back then. We take far too much for granted these days.’
‘Yes, you’re right. We do,’ I said, still in a whisper. I hated planes. What was the man on about? ‘But I’m not sure it warrants tears.’
He looked about him, fingers drumming his thighs like an excited child. ‘Amazing,’ he said, and there was sheer joy in his voice as he reached for his seatbelt and buckled it over his lap.
I really wasn’t comfortable with the whole crying thing. If this almost-giant with a ponytail, a tattoo, and a cowboy hat started sobbing, I wasn’t sure I could cope. All I needed now was to develop nausea, or a rash, or grow hair on my bum, and my life wouldn’t be worth living.
I pulled out a sick bag from the meshed compartment in front of me.
‘Here,’ I said, handing it to him.
He took it, looking puzzled. ‘But I don’t feel sick. Hang on to it yourself, mate. Just in case.’
‘Breathe into it when you feel like crying,’ I said. 'It'll control your anxiety.’
‘But I’m not anxious. You, on the other hand, seem a bit uptight, if you don’t mind me saying.’
‘Just breathe into the bag, Cillian,’ I said.
‘Because then you won’t cry.’ I was talking through gritted teeth.
‘Maybe I want to cry.’ He narrowed his eyes and with a look of realisation said, ‘Aha, you don’t want me to cry, do you? You’re embarrassed by me.’
I shrugged, and avoided his stare. ‘Just thinking of you.’
He looked away, inserting earplugs.
It was later, as he sobbed while the plane glided upwards, and Ayers Rock shrank to the size of a deep orange pebble, that I accepted I hadn’t been thinking of him at all.
I was embarrassed by his huge body shuddering beside me; embarrassed by the king-sized handkerchief he mopped his tears with, embarrassed by the sound of him blowing his nose. I was embarrassed, just as I’d been by my gran when I was eighteen, by my family the day they left me at university. I wasn’t a man; I was a kid playing at being a man. I was an idiot.
The teenage girl took off her headphones, looked my way and screwed up her face.
That’s when I should have said, Cillian is great man, a man who runs deep, a man who's supporting me while I search for my mother, even though he barely knows me. A man who has coped with the loss of a brother – a brother he will never stop searching for.
‘He’s not with me,’ I said, and rolled my eyes.
By the time the cabin crew were up and about again offering refreshments, and we were flying through clear blue skies, Cillian was humming David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ which seriously wasn’t made to be hummed, and happily working on a Sudoku puzzle.
‘Is everything OK, sir?’ one of the crew said to him, with a polite smile.
‘Ab-so-fricking-lute-ly,’ he said, ‘although could you check if we get a meal. I’m bloody starving.’
‘As soon as we get booked into a hotel, we’ll need to find the place the company run their tours from,’ I said, as we headed through Sydney Airport. ‘If that’s where Mum was heading, they might know where she is now.’
‘Your mum said it was called The Prowess of the Blues,’ he said, as we grabbed a hire car and headed for the city centre.
The heart of Sydney was thriving, the temperature hitting the lower forties, so I headed into the first hotel we came to near the harbour, pausing at the entrance to tie my shoelace.
Cillian carried on in, taking giant strides towards an impressive fountain set in marble in the middle of the reception area.
‘Cill!’ I called, racing to catch up.
The reception staff, all dressed in burgundy, the women with lime green scarves, and the men with equally lime green ties, all looked my way.
‘You may want to refrain from calling me Cill in a public place, Isaac,’ Cillian said. ‘A friend of mine spent a night in jail once for shortening my name at an airport.’
‘Duly noted,’ I said, smiling over at the reception staff, who still seemed on red-alert.
‘It’s a bit flash,’ Cillian said, eyes cruising the clean, modern furnishings and décor. ‘Look at all this ruddy water inside, for starters,’ he went on, pointing at the fountain. ‘I’m not sure my budget will run to this place, mate.’
‘It’s on me,’ I said. ‘Well, Olivia.’
‘It’s not important.’ It really wasn’t.
‘OK then. You’ve twisted my arm,’ he said with a wide smile.
We booked in, and headed for a rack of leaflets and brochures informing guests of the wonders of Sydney. There was information on what buses to catch to Bondi Beach, how to book trips to zoos and wildlife centres to see koalas and wombats and kangaroos, information on Sydney Opera House, prices for climbing Sydney Bridge, but there was no sign of any tours by The Prowess of the Blues.
‘How about we try the internet?’ Cillian suggested, heading to the computer for customer use.
We sat down, and I keyed in the name of the company into the search engine.
‘Try adding Sydney,’ Cillian suggested.
A website popped onto the screen. Pictures of The Blue Mountains, a price list, a booking form, an address. ‘We take visitors to areas of The Blue Mountains previously untrodden by tourists.’ It sounded like something my father would have loved.
‘We don’t use that company anymore,’ said a receptionist, pausing in her walk across the foyer to peer over our shoulder. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. But The Prowess of the Blues isn’t something the hotel would recommend, since the son took over. We considered it unsuitable for our customers, even before the tragic death.’
I knew she meant my dad, and I knew Cillian did too, as he gripped my shoulder. His hand felt comforting.
‘The son is in his early twenties, and seems to have little idea how to run a tour.’
‘It says here their offices are in Emu Plains,’ Cillian said, releasing my shoulder.
‘That’s right. Although it isn’t an office as such, it’s their home. It’s about sixty miles outside of Sydney.' The receptionist glanced round, as if checking no one was listening. 'I only know because the manager asked me to vet it out as I don’t live too far from there. I’ve probably got some info somewhere. Hang on.’
She dived behind the counter and opened a cupboard full of papers. She shuffled through them, and headed back to us with a leaflet. ‘Here you go, although as I say, no tours going from here. But we have plenty of other brilliant tours of the mountains, most pick up from the hotel. Just give me a shout if you’re interested.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, as she left.
It was getting late so we decided to start afresh in the morning and headed for our room.
‘Are these free?’ Cillian said once we’d unpacked, opening up the mini-bar.
‘You really don’t know?’ I said, endeared by his naivety.
‘Do I look like someone who’s stayed at a posh hotel before?’ He pulled out a couple of lagers.
‘Well no, they’re not free. They’ll be added to the bill. But…’
‘My treat,’ he said, handing me twenty dollars and one of the beers.
His eyes told me he’d be insulted if I didn’t accept his gesture. ‘Thanks,’ I said,
We drank in silence for nearly an hour, both in our own worlds, stretched on our beds.
‘I saw my friend, Tilly,’ I said, eventually.
‘Your mate who bit a chunk out of your Bob the Builder cake?’
I laughed. ‘No that was me. But yes, my friend when I lived here in Australia. Tilly.’ Her name sounded right on my tongue, and a memory of her writing her number on my hand entered my head.
‘So when did you see her?’
‘In Inala, when I went to see Suki. I didn’t realise it was her at first, she’d changed so much, even has an American accent.’
‘But you know it’s her now?’
‘I saw her when I went into the photograph.’ I paused. ‘She was working behind the bar, and someone called her Tilly.’
‘And you’re sure it was the Tilly from your childhood? It’s a common name.’
‘Well I’ve only ever known two Tillys,’ I said. ‘My Tilly and Ricky’s mum’s spaniel.’ A sudden memory of Ricky came into my head. The way he fussed over dogs. He loved them more than people half the time.
‘There was a Tilly in a Miss Marple mystery on the TV the other evening,’ Cillian said. ‘Her character lasted all of ten minutes before she was bumped off.’
‘Well, thanks for spoiling that episode for me,’ I said with a laugh.
‘OK,’ Cillian went on. ‘Even if it is an unusual name, how can you be sure when she’s American and looks so different?’
‘It’s her,’ I said with certainty. ‘I just know, because I looked into her eyes. They were Tilly’s eyes.’ I paused for a moment. ‘And Cillian,’ I went on, knowing what I was about to say sounded real to me. ‘I think I might be falling in love with her.’
‘Jesus and all the saints. You’re in love after only seeing her once?’
‘Well maybe not in love exactly, but my feelings for her are all over the place. I can’t get her out of my head.’
He laughed. ‘You’re a big girl’s blouse and no mistaking.’
‘Thanks for that.’ I felt stupid. ‘I confide my deepest feelings and…’
‘But you see this woman for all of a few minutes, and you think you’re in love with her,' he scoffed. 'It's bloody ridiculous.’
‘I knew her when I was nine,’ I said. ‘It’s not like she’s a stranger.’
‘Yeah, but she’s changed so much you didn’t recognise her.’
‘I don’t care what you think.’ I slammed down my empty bottle, and turned away from him, switching off the light so the room plunged into darkness.
He was right. Even if it was my Tilly, I knew nothing about her. I was being ridiculous. Clutching at something magical and new to block out the fact I was unwinding by the second. I squeezed my eyes closed.
After a few minutes Cillian coughed, shattering the quiet, and in a voice so small I barely recognised it, said, ‘I’ve only ever been in love once, Isaac, and I messed that up. So what do I know?’
I opened my eyes. I knew so little about this man, yet I was sharing a bedroom with him.
‘Goodnight,’ I said.
Within moments I was dreaming in black and white.
I see my mum in the distance, and although I see her in black and white, she’s wearing a green dress – the richness of the shade looks as though it’s been painted on. It doesn’t quite belong.
‘Isaac,’ she says. ‘It’s OK, darling. I’m happy here.’
‘Your mam needs you.’ It’s my dad.
I woke with a start, and shot up in bed. My mouth was dry and my head pounded. I looked at my mobile. 4 a.m. I switched on the phone’s torch, and picked up the photograph of my parents and Gran in Ireland, Mum pregnant with me. The torchlight brightens their faces. Where are you, Mum?
A tear forced its way out and rolled down my cheek, and for the first time I wondered if she was dead. I hadn’t allowed that dark thought in before, but now it spreads. More tears, and my body shuddered. I jumped up and dashed to the bathroom. I locked the door and splashed my face with water, before staring at face in the mirror. Through my tears, I looked like a boy again.
A knock. ‘Isaac. Are you OK, mate?’
‘Fine,’ I said, my reflection returning to normal. I’d caught the sun and was tanned for the main part, but my nose was red and peeling. Stubble had colonised my chin. I splashed my face again, and dried it with a soft, white towel.
‘I’m fine,' I said to Cillian as I left the bathroom. 'I couldn’t sleep, that’s all.’
He was holding the picture of my family in Ireland, and I realised I must have left it on the bed. ‘Do you want to go into the picture?’
‘Yes,’ I said without hesitation, and sat on the edge of the bed. ‘I really want to.’
‘You could become this old chap in the cap.' He pointed to a man on a bench, looking out to sea.’
‘OK,’ I said, as he handed me the potion. ‘Let's do this.'
‘Thank you,’ my mother says, as the woman who took the photo returns her camera. ‘I can’t wait to get it developed.’ She turns to my father. ‘Let’s go down to Boots later, and put the film in.’
‘Sure,’ he says with a smile, taking her hand as they look out at the harbour, the sun glinting on the blue of the sea, yachts bobbing up and down. Surprisingly, I recognise the outline in the distance as the Benbulben Mountains.
Gran heads towards the elderly man whose body I've temporarily occupied.
‘Hello there. Fine day for it,’ she says, sitting next to him, so close their knees touch. I recognise her familiar smell of cigarette smoke and Imperial Leather soap. ‘Rosses Point is my favourite place. It’s so beautiful here.’
‘Gran,’ I call to her, but I know she can’t hear me. She looks different to how I remember her. Younger - mid-fifties. A time I only knew from photographs, a time when she had her own teeth. ‘It’s me, Isaac. It’s so good to see you. I miss you.’
The man smiles and nods. ‘It’s beautiful, so it is.’ His Irish lilt is strong, his tone regretful somehow, and I sense a sadness inside him.
His eyes leave my gran and focus on the sea. I remember this area. When I came here in my teens a monument stood several yards away from where the man is sitting now. It was of a huge woman holding out her arms towards Sligo Bay, calling to those lost at sea. Waiting on the shore, my mother told me it was called. But it’s not here yet. This is a time long before it was unveiled.
The man’s eyes drift to my parents, their backs to him, Mum’s head resting on Dad’s shoulder. ‘Are they married?’ he asks.
‘They are, yes,’ says my gran. ‘It was all a tad quick, mind you. What with the little one on its way.’ She narrows her eyes. ‘Kate is besotted by my Patrick. And Patrick will get used to the idea of being a husband and father soon enough, if he doesn’t want my toe up his backside.’ She smiles. ‘He’s a dreamer. But they’re in love. I have no doubt of that.’
‘And if they hadn’t been,’ the man says. ‘She would have been OK on her own, I dare say.’
‘I would imagine so, yes. She has a good family in Cumbria, who would have been there. I must admit, Patrick was in shock at first. He had big plans of his own to travel and write. They didn’t include a wife and baby. But he’s stuck by her, and I’m proud of him for that.’
The man nods, and sighs deeply. ‘Times have changed, especially for young women with-child.’ I can feel the emotion in his voice. He speaks from experience I can tell, although what experience I’m not sure.
‘Yes, times have indeed changed.’ Gran smiles and holds out her hand for him to shake. ‘I’m Caroline O’Donnell, by the way.’
‘Michael Murphy,’ he says. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
He looks from Gran and back to my parents.
‘Yeats holidayed here in his childhood?’ Dad is saying; his Irish accent thick, flooding me with memories of him reading to me as a child. ‘Probably where he got some of his inspiration, I shouldn’t wonder.’
I see Mum squeeze Dad’s hand. ‘I love you Patrick O’Donnell,’ she says.
‘I love you too Kate O’Donnell.’ He kneels down in front of her and rests his head on her round stomach. ‘And I love you too, little O’Donnell.’
Mum pulls him to his feet and kisses him softly on the lips. ‘We’re going to be happy aren’t we?’ she says.
‘We’re already happy, Kate. We’ve just got to hang onto it for dear life.’
The man turns to my gran, whose eyes have welled with tears.
‘By the time you get to my age,’ he says, ‘you have regrets.’
‘And what are those, Michael?’ Gran searches his face.
‘I was a heavy drinker, after my wife passed over. A useless article and a hopeless father.’ He takes off his cap, and his aging hands turn it like a steering wheel, before returning it to his head. ‘My daughter had to give up her baby, my grandson, all those years ago, when Ireland was a different place – and I was a different person.’ He pauses, sniffing, then takes out a handkerchief and blows his nose. ‘She was so young.’
Gran pats his hand. ‘So how is she now, Michael? Your daughter - is she alright now?’
He shakes his head. ‘She never had any more to do with me, and I don’t blame her for that.’ He bites his lip. ‘She never really believed her baby had gone, you see. Don’t get me wrong, she was a clever girl, an accountant, and she had a brilliant job in northern England. But she was never quite right, after they took her child.’
‘She’s long gone,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘Long gone.’
My parents walk towards the bench, their faces bright and happy. It feels strange that they’re younger than me. It’s as though I’ve jumped into a scene of Back to the Future - without the humour.
‘How lovely to be as in love as you young ones,’ the man says, his eyes still watery as he rises. ‘I’ll leave you to your family, Mrs O’Donnell. Thank you for listening.’ He turns, and all I can see now is the green of the grass, the white of the houses, the blue of the sea and sky, and the long, long road ahead of him.