Isaac’s eyes were fixed on the TV screen, his face drained of colour. He’d put the TV on half an hour ago, and a half-solved Agatha Christie mystery had appeared on the screen. He hadn’t turned it over. I hadn’t asked him to.
My emotions were raw. I was the abducted boy.
I thought of Mum. She was never my Mum.
I clenched and unclenched my fists. I wasn’t angry, I was sad – no, sad didn’t begin to cover it. This was the kind of pain I’d felt the day she died. The kind of pain I’d hoped never to feel again.
Growing up, she’d been a good Mum. She came to my school plays, and we went to the beach, on picnics. She’d hugged me often, and ironically, she taught me right from wrong – was a stickler for it. We’d talked and laughed together. She read with me, listened to me read, but maths was her obsession.
9 x 9 = 81
‘You can get what you want from life, Cillian, if you know your mathematics.’
7 x 7 = 49
We’d lived in a house in Inala. We were happy, just the two of us filling the space between the walls with laughter and occasional tears. For a long time I didn’t ask who my father was, or why I hadn’t any grandparents, or aunts and uncles, or cousins, like the other kids at school had.
She’d told me very little about her past, only that she grew up in Sligo in Ireland, and for years it had been enough.
In my teens, I began to ask questions, and when no answers came I rebelled. I knew I was hurting her by coming in late, or not at all, but I was an angry kid
‘What do you expect?’ I’d cried one night, rolling in drunk. Mum stood helpless in the corner, dragging her dressing-gown round herself, her eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep. ‘You tell me nothing about my father, your family in Ireland. Who am I, Mum?’
‘You’re my Cillian,’ she’d said, stepping forward and taking me in her arms.
I broke down. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,’ I’d cried. But still she hadn’t told me the truth.
Now, the TV screen went black, and Isaac looked my way as he clattered the remote controls onto the coffee table.
‘And there was me thinking the butler did it,’ I said acknowledging the Agatha Christie, and finding a laugh from somewhere.
‘Me too,’ Isaac said, smiling. His eyes didn’t leave mine. ‘Are you OK?’
I nodded. ‘I will be,’ I said, though I wasn’t sure how long it would take. ‘Tell me, Isaac, who’s Gary?’
‘Gary?’ Isaac smiled. ‘I guess we can’t know for sure who your mother was calling to that day on the cliff. Gary could be your older brother.’ He paused. ‘Gary could be you.’
‘Maybe the woman in green gave you the name Cillian,’ Isaac went on.
‘That was her name: Bryony Murphy.’ I shook my head. This was too hard. ‘I just can’t understand why she took me.’ I pulled out the photo of her and the baby, and stared at it.
‘Why not go into the photo,’ Isaac urged. ‘You might learn something.’
‘I can’t go into a picture of a relative,’ I reminded him.
‘But she wasn’t, was she? And that’s not you in the picture,’ Isaac said, and bit his lip. ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to sound so blunt.’
But I already knew what he was saying was true. I covered my face with my hands. ‘So I guess I could go in,’ I said. ‘Although, I’m not sure my befuddled brain could cope.’
‘I could go in,’ Isaac said, without hesitation. ‘If it will help.’
‘You’d do that?’
‘Of course, anything to help.’
I pulled out the potion and handed it over.
Isaac removed the lid, knocked it back, and waited – and waited. ‘This is weird,’ he said. ‘Nothing’s happening.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
‘Oh God, I’m such an idiot,’ Isaac blurted, seconds later. He smacked his forehead with his palm. ‘I can’t go in because if the baby isn’t you, there’s nobody in the photo I care about.’
‘Christ. I didn’t think of that,’ I said. And I knew, however much I’d loved the woman I’d called Mum, she wasn’t my mum. I could go into the photo and see things through her eyes. Maybe even understand what had made her take me.
‘So it’ll have to be me,’ I said, picking up the liquid and taking a swig before I could change my mind.
I look at the baby, small and helpless in the arms of the woman I’d always believed was my mother. The child could be me. He has my eyes, my hair and complexion.
We’re in a courtyard of a high building, a tall wrought iron fence separating us from the world.
‘It’ll be a lovely photo, Bryony,’ says a young girl, her blonde hair windswept. She’s Irish, and she’s fiddling with a cumbersome looking camera. ‘I’ll sneak the film to Aiden tonight, and ask him to print it for you.’
‘Thank you, Kathleen.’ Bryony – I can’t call her mother – sounds so sad, her voice painfully raw. I feel the love she has for the child in her arms; immense and unconditional.
‘Bryony Murphy.’ A nun approaches, her habit rustling as she walks. Her stern face peeps out of her headdress, as she takes the baby from Bryony with slight force. The baby lets out a cry, and Bryony glances at Kathleen who hides the camera behind her back.
‘What have you got there, Kathleen Doyle?’ the nun says – she’s Irish too.
‘Nothing, Sister Kennedy,’ says Kathleen, with a curtsey.
The nun huffs, and heads towards large wooden doors that lead into the building, the baby yelling in her arms. He wants his mum.
‘Wait,’ Bryony calls.
The nun picks up speed and doesn’t look back.
It hits me that this is a convent in Ireland – one that single mothers go to when their families abandon them. I’ve seen documentaries, and read about them. Their children are put up for adoption in America, and the mothers have no choice - are made to feel like sinners. Young, delicate Bryony is a sinner in their eyes.
I’ve stepped into a world far away from the one I know. It feels wrong. I want to yell, but there’s no point. Nobody will hear.
There’s a dusting of ice on the pavements and bushes, lining the walls of the convent, like icing sugar disguising a decaying cake. Bryony is freezing in her flimsy dress and thin cardigan.
She wraps it around her, her heart thumping as she watches the nun walk through the door and slam it shut. Her eyes burn and ache with tears.
Kathleen nods towards the wrought iron fence where a car stands, door open. ‘They’re taking him today,’ she says. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Bryony cries and rushes towards the fence. The wind whips her hair across her face. It’s thin and lifeless, as it had been in the photograph. She grabs the railings, her knuckles turning white as she watches the nun come out of the main entrance of the convent and hand the baby to a young woman in a skirt suit and court shoes.
‘Cillian,’ Bryony calls. ‘Please don’t take him,’ she pleads with the nun. ‘I can look after him, really I can. I’ll get a job. I know my mathematics.’ She recites her tables through sobs. ‘I can care for him.’
Finally she calms and sits on a step, the sound of the car’s engine now fading into the distance. Only the stillness and silence remain.
Kathleen sits beside her and gently strokes her arm. She hands her a piece of paper. It’s a birth certificate.
‘You stole it?’ Bryony says through her tears.
Kathleen nods. ‘It belongs to you,’ she says. ‘You’ll find him, once you’re out of here, I know you will.’
Bryony looks up at the grey sky as an icy rain begins to fall, soaking her hair. She makes a cradle of her arms, looking at something I cannot see, and rocks gently.
‘There, there, Cillian, please don’t cry,’ she says in a songlike whisper. ‘Mammy’s here, my little angel. She’ll always be here. Your Mammy loves you. Your Mammy needs you.’