Cillian knocked back the brandy in one gulp.
‘Go on,’ he said, putting the empty glass on the table.
I rubbed my hand across my mouth, my skin still moist from the water he’d thrown over me. My body prickled as I tried to make sense of it all.
‘OK,’ I said, my heart racing way too fast. ‘Please can I take another look at the photograph of your mother?’ I needed to be sure.
He shrugged and took it from his pocket. After staring at it for some moments, he handed it to me.
I took in the woman - her floral dress and flat shoes, her hair neat to her shoulders, her face pale, and finally the baby in her arms. It was proof, if I needed any, that what I was about to tell Cillian was true – unbelievably true.
‘What’s going on, Isaac?’ Cillian said, his voice soft with concern, and I looked up from the picture. My head throbbed as the words I wanted to say lined up like a firing squad. But I knew I had to be careful.
I took a deep breath and picked up the other photograph, the one of Cillian and his brother. ‘You told me you found this.’
He nodded. ‘That’s right. Under the floorboards when I was nineteen. I must have dropped it as a child and it slipped through.’
‘What if you hid it there?’
‘What?’ He shook his head. ‘Why would I do that? Why would I hide a picture of me and my little brother, after he’d just gone missing?’
I paused, finding the whole scenario difficult to get my head round. ‘The thing is,’ I went on, ‘there could only have been one Polaroid taken that day, at that moment in time.’
‘True,’ Cillian said, frowning.
‘And yet you told me your brother put that picture in his pocket.’ I paused. ‘So how did it end up under the floorboards of your home in Australia?’
Cillian rubbed his temples. ‘I’ve been here before, Isaac.’ he said. ‘He must have given it to me at some point.’ His frown deepened. ‘What’s this about? You’re giving me the heebie jeebies with your mysterious tone, son. Spill the beans.’
I took a deep breath. ‘The woman in green,’ I began. ‘The woman I saw in Phototime just now…’ I stopped, still unsure if I should actually say it.
‘Spit it out, son.’
‘It’s the woman in this picture.’ I held it out to him, my hand shaking.
‘What?’ He snatched the photo. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he said, looking at it. ‘This is my mother when she was young.’
I shook my head. ‘I don’t see how it can be,’ I said. ‘Honestly, Cillian, this is the woman I just saw in the picture. The woman in green,’ I repeated.
‘But why would my mother take my little brother?’
‘That’s the point. I don’t think your real mother did.’
‘My real mother?’
‘Cillian the woman in green is the woman who stole a child that day.’
‘But the woman in green is the woman in this picture. The woman you’ve always believed was your mother.’
‘You’re confusing me, Isaac.’
‘She’s not your mother, Cillian.’ I felt a pang of sadness, as his eyes became watery. ‘And this woman took a child that day, but I don’t think it was your brother. I think it was you that she took. That you’re the younger child in the photo.’
His eyes glazed over, as though he was suddenly far away. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Think, Cillian. Think.’
He seemed to disappear into his own world, before eventually turning to me, as if something had occurred to him. ‘I slipped the picture between the floorboards in case…’ He pressed his hand to his mouth.
‘In case what, Cillian?’
‘In case she took it from me. In case I forgot my brother, and the family she’d taken me away from.’ His voice was raw with emotion, as, what I felt sure, was his past flooding back. ‘My real family.’
‘The smallest boy in this picture is you, Cillian,’ I said, just to make sure he understood. I reached over and placed my hand on his. ‘You were the boy who was taken.’
Cillian’s eyes widened. ‘She was never my mother?’
I shook my head.
He seemed to think about this for some moments, his face pale underneath his tan. ‘So, she was the cruel and heartless woman she talked about the day before she died. She was talking about herself.’ He seemed suddenly oblivious to me being there. ‘She was the one who stole me from my family. I’m the little boy.’ He seemed astonished by the realisation, and a great shudder ran though him. I thought he might be about to cry, but he didn’t, and his eyes were no longer watery. ‘I need another brandy.’
He got up without another word, and hobbled towards the bar, where he ordered a drink. He was so tall and thick set, but despite his solid appearance, he seemed somehow lost – like the little boy he’d once been.
He returned, knocking back the drink in one before he reached the table.
‘There must be some mistake,’ he said, so softly I barely heard him.
‘There’s no mistake, Cillian.’ I hated saying it. I knew he didn’t want it to be true. ‘The reason you struggled to recall that day was because you were so young.’
‘No much younger, Cillian.’
He screwed his eyes up, thinking. ‘Of course, yes, I’m getting confused,’ he said at last, taking off his hat, and stroking his hair away from his face. ‘Far too much to take in, mate.’ He shook his head. .
‘The woman you thought was your mother must have planted stories in your head from the off, giving you false memories,’ I went on. ‘You told me about those, remember? How people can sometimes take on new versions of what happened.’
‘So my older brother could still be out there, alive and well?’
‘Let’s hope so,’ I said.
‘Maybe he’s been with my real mum all this time.’ I couldn’t tell from his monotone whether that was good or bad. He’d taken on a vacant look, as though it was all too much, and I felt pretty shell-shocked myself.
‘Maybe,’ I said, trying to sound positive.
He shook the matchbox and winced.
‘But first, you really should see a doctor.’
He opened and closed the matchbox as though preparing for a magic trick.
‘Cillian, why not come and stay with me and Mum for a bit? Just until you feel better. I could help you find your brother.’
His eyes met mine. ‘I need to know why she took me, Isaac. Why she brought me here. But she’s dead, so I’ll never know.’ He picked up the photo. ‘And if this baby isn’t me, who the bloody hell is it?’
‘Come back with me, Cillian,’ I said. ‘Please. You need to get well.’
He looked at me again. ‘If you’re sure,’ he said. ‘I suppose a man can only take so much of Suki and her Monty Python obsession.’ He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
‘And then Gus dived into the water after him, forgetting he couldn’t swim.’ June came to the end of her story, and Gus roared with laughter.
Kate smiled. She liked the couple. They’d lifted her spirits no end. But in truth, she hadn’t really kept up with the story of Gus’s swimming pool adventures, her mind continually drifting to Patrick.
‘I had my armbands on,’ Gus said, with pretend smugness.
‘Fat lot of good they were on your ankles, Gus, you great big, gorgeous fool.’ June nudged his midriff, and he pecked her on the cheek.
Kate glanced into the conservatory where Granny Gertie was sitting, the rain hammering on the roof above her like pebbles. ‘She looks peaceful,’ Kate said.
‘Looks can be deceiving.’ June rose and began to clear the plates they’d been eating cake from, only a sprinkling of crumbs left.
‘She’s always on alert; waiting,’ said Gus, giving June a hand.
Gus smiled. ‘It’s a very long story, Kate. Have you got all day?’
‘I’ve got all year,’ Kate said, knowing she had no real plan going forward.
‘Then I’ll put the kettle on again,’ said June, heading for the kitchen.
‘Mum,’ I called as I opened the door, but there was no reply. Not even the cats came to greet us. I turned to Cillian. ‘She must still be next door being fed cake.’
Cillian smiled and followed me in. ‘Nice place,’ he said, his eyes flicking over the wall and surfaces. ‘Your parents were well travelled. I love the clocks. Time waits for no man, someone once said.’
Cillian widened his eyes, clearly impressed.
‘My dad was always quoting things like that when I was a kid,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t realised I’d stored them up.’ I paused. ‘But I’m glad I have because it feels as if I’ve hung on to part of him.’
Cillian patted my arm, before reaching into his pocket. ‘Before I forget,’ he said, handing me a piece of paper.
‘It’s Tilly’s mobile number. She said to pass it on.’
‘Really?’ My heartbeat quickened.
‘She said to give it you when you came round from your drunken stupor.’
‘I had to explain why you looked like you were in a coma at the bar. It was the first thing that came into my head. I could hardly say you were in Phototime, now could I?’
‘So you told Tilly I was drunk.’
‘I did indeed.’
I rolled my eyes.
‘And then I said you were at Molly Malone’s hoping to get her number because you’d lost it the first time.’
‘Oh God, she must think I’m an absolute jerk.’
‘She gave me her number to pass on, didn’t she? Call her,’ he said. ‘She’s a great girl.’
I stuffed the piece of paper in my pocket, selfishly frustrated that I couldn’t call her right then, but Cillian needed me. ‘Please sit,’ I said, lifting some newspapers off the sofa and thumping a cushion, although I wasn’t sure why. ‘I’ll call a doctor.’
‘Don’t bother, I’m fine, honestly. It’s my ribs for the main part, and they’ll heal themselves.’
It was true. I’d read it once on the internet.
‘Are you sure?’ I said. ‘What about your head?’ I knew I was wasting my time from the way he sat down and glared at me.
‘There’s nothing wrong that rest and a drop of lager won’t solve.’
‘It’s midday, and you’ve already had two brandies.’
‘Who are you, my mother?’
I knew the only way out of that comment was to grab a couple of lagers from the fridge. I removed the lids, handed him one, and sat down beside him on the sofa.
‘So where do we begin?’ I said.
‘What, on our quest for my long lost brother?’ He grimaced.
‘Are you OK?’
‘Never been better.’ He took a gulp of his drink. ‘My life has been turned upside down, but hey, guess what? It was shit, anyway.’
There was a silence as he fiddled with the label on the bottle, finally ripping it off. ‘They never looked for me,’ he said, his voice quiet. ‘My real mum and brother, they never looked for me.’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘I know that,’ he said, narrowing his eyes. ‘And they allowed me to be taken.’
‘Please stop, Cillian. You’re torturing yourself. You don’t know anything about them. They could have searched the world for you.’
‘But they didn’t find me.’
‘She took you to Australia. They wouldn’t have known where to start.’
‘How?’ He was fired up now, a light in his eyes.
‘How did she manage to get me out of England?’
‘I don’t know, my friend. I really don’t know.’
‘And why did this woman I called Mum for so many years take me in the first place?’
I shrugged, helplessly. ‘I don’t know,’ I repeated. ‘I wish I did.’
He coughed, and took a swig of his drink, staring into space.
‘But we have a new route now,’ I said. ‘We can try to find them. Maybe once Mum’s OK again, we could go back to England together – search newspapers for a child who disappeared from...’ I paused. I didn’t know where.
‘Mum committed suicide because I showed her that picture, because I asked her about it,’ he said. ‘Do you think the guilt from taking me was too much?’
I nodded. ‘I guess we’ll never know for sure. But it seems likely.’
‘But why not leave a note, an explanation?’
‘Maybe she didn’t want you to think badly of her.’
He shook his head, as though it was all too much to cope with. ‘She always cared for me, Isaac,’ he said, closing his eyes.
A tear escaped through his lashes, and rolled down his cheek.
Tilly stared across the restaurant table at Hank, who was talking non-stop about himself, between mouthfuls of pasta.
She’d handed in her resignation at Molly Malone’s. A month from today she would be flying back to America. So what was she doing with a man she didn’t really like, when the person she couldn’t get out of her head was Isaac? And why had Isaac been in Molly Malone’s again that morning, drunk? That’s what the man with the ponytail had said. Isaac had passed out from drinking all morning. And she’d given his friend her cell number to pass on - again. Why was she being so ridiculous? Isaac clearly wasn’t interested. And it wasn’t as if she needed a man. She certainly didn’t need Hank. So what was she doing at the restaurant, wearing a short, pink dress – a dress that said, ‘come and get me’ - with a man she didn’t even want?
It was what she’d always done. It must be a flaw in her DNA, she’d decided a long time ago. She always ended up with the worst kind of men.
In America, she’d been swayed by men who flirted with her, while buying flowers for their partners. A psychologist told her once that she had no self- worth. ‘You deliberately set yourself up for a fall,’ she’d told Tilly, tapping her pen on her notepad. Tilly had retaliated by saying her business was doing incredibly well, but the psychologist came back with, ‘This has nothing to do with your success in business, Tilly. This is to do with your self-destruct button, and how you keep on pressing it.’
Tilly had cancelled her sessions, and stormed from the building in tears.
‘You’re a one woman dynamo,’ her friend Jess had reassured her, when she barged into the apartment they shared later, and asked, ‘Am I failure?’
‘But the psychologist was right, Jess,’ Tilly had said, pouring a huge glass of wine. ‘I keep going for the wrong kind of men. I don’t even know why I need a man in my life anyway. You don’t.’
Jess had smiled. ‘That’s because I is gay,’ she’d said in a silly voice.
‘Well, yes.’ Tilly said. ‘But you never pick the wrong partners, do you?’
‘Sometimes,’ Jess had said kindly, sitting down next to Tilly. ‘Maybe you should focus on the good things. The way you’ve made a success of the shop.’
Tilly nodded. She’d somehow drummed up business, and between them they’d made a real go of it. Admittedly her step-father had lent her the money to set it up, but she’d paid him back. Her hard work and flair had made it work, and she hadn’t needed a man for that. Men are a waste of time. Her dad had proved that over and over.
‘Tilly.’ It was Hank, bolognaise on his chin, jolting her from her thoughts. ‘What do you think?’
‘I totally agree,’ she said with a smile, ramming her fork into a mushroom.
‘You agree I’m a jerk?’ He furrowed his dark eyebrows.
Part of her wanted to say yes, but she knew it wouldn’t be kind. She hadn’t been paying attention to his ramblings, her mind too full of Isaac. ‘Noooooo, of course you’re not a jerk,’ she said.
‘But I just told you Jake Marsden at work called me a jerk, and you said you totally agree.’
‘Ah.’ She nodded several times. ‘But what I meant was; he’s a jerk.’
‘That’s not what you said.’ He gave her a suspicious look. ‘Were you even listening to me?’
‘Of course, yes, and what I honestly meant was, Jake Marsden is a jerk.’ She shoved the mushroom into her mouth and began chewing. ‘This is yummy, by the way.’
‘You know him?’
‘Yes. Tall, blond guy.’
She coughed on the mushroom. ‘Oh, that Jake Marsden. I was thinking of a totally different Jake Marsden.’
Hank's phone vibrated across the table. He picked it up, and looked at the screen. ‘Sorry, better get this. Work.’ He rose, and headed out of the restaurant onto the pavement.
She watched him talking, pacing, dragging his fingers through his dark hair. He was good looking, if a little short. And at least he had a job. And a Mercedes.
She supposed she could do a lot worse.
Or I could wait for a call from Isaac that will never come.
She picked up her phone, searching for a message from him, a voicemail - anything.
‘Can I get you something else?’
The waitress had appeared from behind, making Tilly jump. Her phone slipped through her fingers and plopped into her glass of wine. ‘Oh God,’ she said, fishing it out. ‘I’m such an idiot.’
‘Turn it upside down,’ the waitress obliged. ‘I’ll get you a plastic bag and some rice. It dries it out, apparently.’
‘Thanks,’ Tilly said, shaking the wine from her now dead phone. Could today get any worse?